Monday, March 27, 2017

Private Eye in the Distant Sea

One little Soldier Boy left all alone;
He went out and hanged himself and then there were none.
"And Then There Were None"

A couple of years back, I wrote about Fuji TV’s adaptation of Agatha Christie’s classic Murder on the Orient Express. It was an interesting project, as it was broadcast in two parts: the first episode was highly inspired by the 1974 film and followed the novel quite closely, while the second episode presented the tale from the perspective of the murderer(s), starting with the motive and how everything was prepared. It was also in this second episode where director Mitani Kouki really shined, as a lot of his films are screwball comedies where things go wrong ‘backstage’, while everybody tries to keep up appearances. The hectic and chaotic hotel of The Uchouten Hotel, the constant improvising during the live performance of a radio play in Radio no Jikan (AKA Welcome Back, Mr. McDonald) and the political games to decide the future of Japan in The Kiyosu Conference are all typical Mitani settings, and his lighthearted, slightly humorous take on how the murder came to be gave his Murder in the Orient Express adaptation a unique touch, even if it was not a perfect adaptation. It would take another few years before another Japanese live-action adaptation of a Christie work would come.

Soldier Island is a small private island far off Hachijojima (an island about 300 kilometers south of Tokyo). A person named Nanao Shin will soon be opening his “Nature Hotel” there: a place of recreation far away from the stress of modern day life, where people can live freely surrounded by pure nature. Nanao has invited eight persons of interest to spend some days in his Nature Hotel: some of the more illustrious guests include former gold medallist swimmer Shiramine Ryou, mystery writer Gomyou Taku, retired actress Hoshizora Ayako and former MP Monden Senmei. The guests look forward to spending a few days at this resort and find the little touches to the “return to nature” call quite charming. For example, cell phones/tablets/etcetera are not allowed on the island (the staff are to keep their belongings in a safe) and the newspaper is only delivered once every few days by a drone. But it is during dinner that the guests, and the two staff members, discover they have been set-up: a mysterious voice accuses each of the ten people present of having committed a crime for which they were never punished and for which they will now pay on this island. The ten all deny having done such a horrible deed and consider it nothing more than a very, very bad joke, but nobody laughs when Gomyou Taku suddenly topples over, having been poisoned with arsenic. As there are no means for the survivors to contact the mainland themselves, they have to wait until the boat arrives after the storm, but as time passes by, they all get killed off one by one following the nursery rhyme Ten Little Soldiers, until nobody is left alive on the island in TV Asahi’s 2017 two-part TV special Soshite Dare mo Inaku Natta (And Then There Were None).

And Then There Were None (1939) is of course widely considered one of, if not the best by Agatha Christie. The now timeless story of people on an isolated island getting murdered one by one until nobody is left has had a tremendous influence on mystery fiction in general, also in the eyes of the general public. There are also various adaptations of the story: from the stage play (written by Christie herself) to film and radio adaptations. The most recent one up until now was probably BBC’s 2015 series. Your mileage might vary, but I thought BBC’s adaptation of Agatha’s Christie’s Tommy & Tuppence series in the form of Partners in Crime (2015) was horrible, so I had little expectations for their three-part series of And Then There Were None. But that turned out to be a fantastic mini-series, which managed to portray a distinct, desolate sense of desperation as the story headed to its climax. It was genuinely scary, as people slowly but surely lost their cool with every murder. In my mind, it set a standard to which to compare other And Then There Were None adaptations with, and it was definitely on mind as I watched TV Asahi’s adaptation of the classic.


The TV Asahi mini-series Soshite Dare mo Inaku Natta was broadcast on March 25 and 26, each part featuring a runtime of around two hours (making the total runtime longer than the BBC series). The first thing that people will probably notice is that Soshite Dare mo Inaku Natta is set in present day Japan, rather than the late 30s UK of the original novel. Soldier Island now lies quite faraway south of Tokyo, while the ten little soldiers to be killed off are all complete original characters (their names are not based on the original names, like in the 2015 Murder on the Orient Express adaptation). To start off with the ten little soldiers: all the characters have completely revised (modern) backgrounds, but they still retain the original crimes they were accused off in the novel. For example, the character General MacArthur of the original novel was accused of sending a younger subordinate officer who had an affair with his wife on a mission with no chance of survival, while in this special, is now former MP Monden Senmei is accused of sending his secretary to a building he knew was the target of an imminent terrorist bombing. Most of the changes work, even though quite a lot of the characters are portrayed less bad than in the original novel (the first victim for example was perhaps not without guilt, but he was also unfortunate in this version for example, rather than being the amoral snob of the original). Like in the BCC adaptation, the characters are constantly haunted by flashbacks to their crimes and show the viewers what they really felt and thought during those times, as oppose to the façade the characters try to keep up in front of the others.

The modern setting naturally also causes some problems. It’s an issue that has long been examined in postmodern mystery novels: is the isolated, closed circle setting even still viable in the present day? It’s a theme Ayatsuji Yukito played with in The Decagon House Murders for example (which was obviously inspired by And Then There Were None), and you still see it often in Japanese mystery fiction these days, but there is no denying there’s some artificial touch to it in a modern setting (note that despite that, I love the setting. I don’t read mystery fiction for realism, I read it for entertainment). In Soshite Dare mo Inaku Natta, we see the characters have to hand over their smart devices to follow the rules of the Nature Hotel, which is a solution that works I think. Obviously, the characters do try to make contact with the police after the first death, but by then the batteries have been removed from their devices by an unknown entity. With drones delivering newspapers to the island, one has the feeling the island is not closed off completely from the outside world, but as the story only takes a few days, I guess this idea works quite well.


A question which will probably pop up is: Is there a compelling reason for this adaptation to be set in the present day, rather than the original 30s setting? As at first sight, it only seems to weaken ‘the isolated setting’ premise. To that I have to say: yes, there is absolutely a good reason why it is set in the modern day. One problem adaptations have always struggled with is the balance between originality and being faithful to the source material. Of course, one can add originality in various ways, but the BBC’s And Then There Were None adaptation was on the whole more a faithful adaptation than one that surprised me with original ideas and takes on the source material. Original take is often taken as a negative, as “improvements” are often not what they hoped to be, but in the case of Soshite Dare mo Inaku Natta, I’d argue the changes helped make this adaptation at least offers a platform for a wide-sided discussion.

The original And Then There Were None novel has always had a rather existential problem. At one hand, the premise has all ten persons dying on the island, leaving nobody alive on the island, which eliminates the possibility of a murderer roaming on the island. As a narrative, this is a very strong one: you see each of them die one by one until there are none, and then this story ends. But that also means there’s nobody left to solve the mystery of who arranged for all of this. The original novel solved this by adding two epilogues to the story, where for example the police examines the murders after the discovery. I always thought this went against the premise of the story, as it introduced an outside world, even though the story until then had been focused completely on the island and its ten inhabitants. The stage play ‘solves’ this by having the mastermind explaining everything themselves on the island in the conclusion, but this too felt a bit staged. The conundrum “isolated world where nobody is left, not even somebody to explain everything” VS “opening up the isolated world to explain events” is something that probably won’t bother most people, but one that has always bothered me a bit. To bring The Decagon House Murders up again: that story did something interesting there by adding another, mainland-focused narrative right from the start, which had its pros and cons too.


Soshite Dare mo Inaku Natta too embraces the open world premise. The special actually opens with a scene set during the police investigation of the island, where they have discovered ten murdered people and are now trying to find out how it all happened. They know something fishy is going on, as the island was isolated from the outside world the last few days. The special then jumps back in time to tell the story of the Ten Little Soldiers all getting killed, only to return to the police narrative for the last hour or so. It is in this part where Soshite Dare mo Inaku Natta adds a distinct original touch to And Then There Were None. The original novel was, by design, always more focused on suspense rather than detection. Sure, the characters on the island sure did their best to find out who was trying to kill them (or suspecting it was one of them doing it all), but overall, it felt more like a thriller than a tale of reasoning. The same holds for the BBC adaptation, which was a dark story focused a lot on the psychological side of the characters. In Soshite Dare mo Inaku Natta, the people-getting-murdered narrative is obviously inspired by the BBC adaptation, showing us a fairly grim portrayal of how the characters cope with both their direct fears as well as their hidden demons. It even has that same green hue on the screen that I very much associate with the BBC adaptation. The mode in all these versions is that of the thriller, not that of the tale of detection. When we come to Soshite Dare mo Inaku Natta’s police narrative however, we are first introduced to a true whodunit mode to the old tale. The somewhat eccentric Chief Inspector Shoukokuji here leads the investigation into the ten murders and it is here where we see the biggest departure from the original novel. Not only is there a distinct comedic tone to this part (with lieutenant Tatara and Chief Inspector Shoukokuji forming a Poirot-Watson-esque pair) and are we introduced to bright, sunny weather now as opposed to the dark, grim tone of the island narrative, the mode of the tale is now a true tale of logical reasoning and detection.

The original novel ended by pointing attention to three hints the murderer(s) left during the tale that should’ve have given away they were the culprit. I have always thought those clues were rather weak and nothing more than very vague nudges, and even then they were open to discussion. Soshite Dare mo Inaku Natta changes these hints, replacing them with a series of original hints from which Chief Inspector Shoukokuji manages to deduce what has happened on the island. These deductions also lead to the explanation why it made absolutely sense that this production was set in the present day, rather than the 1930s. While I don’t think all the new hints work (some of them were really obvious),  I think the plot device they were going for was an original one, and I really appreciate they went for it, as it works out quite well on the whole (even if also raises some questions about how workable this really was). On the whole though, I’d say these changes turned Soshite Dare mo Inaku Natta in a much stronger whodunit narrative on the whole compared to the original novel, as it starts off with the framing story of the police trying to solve the mystery of Soldier Island, rather than by focusing solely on the events on the island and adding the police as an afterthought. Whether the changed focus is for the best, is something that everybody will experience differently I think, but I was pleasantly surprised by this new take on the old story.

Minor ROT13 spoilers about why it is set in the present day (No spoilers of the identity of the murderer(s)): Puvrs Vafcrpgbe Fubhxbxhwv svaqf bhg gung gur zheqrere npghnyyl erpbeqrq rirelguvat gung unccrarq ba gur vfynaq guebhtu n argjbex bs uvqqra pnzrenf. Gur aneengvir gur ivrjref fnj bs gur gra crbcyr trggvat xvyyrq bss bar ol bar jnf npghnyyl (n qenzngvp vagrecergngvba bs gur) ivqrb zngrevny gur cbyvpr sbhaq naq rqvgrq vagb n puebabybtvpny erpbafgehpgvba bs jung unccrarq (boivbhfyl, gur synfuonpxf naq fghss jrer abg cneg bs gur ivqrb zngrevny). Riraghnyyl, Fubhxbxhwv nyfb svaqf n ivqrb ol gur zheqrere(f) pbasrffvat gurve pevzr naq rkcynvavat jung unccrarq.


In terms of casting, Soshite Dare mo Inaku Natta also has some great surprises. The average “star-power” of the cast is actually quite high, so one can’t guess who the culprit is based solely on the name. But what is interesting is that most of the actors featured are actually also known for playing leading roles in mystery shows. Nakama Yukie (Shiramine Ryou/Vera Claythorne expy) is arguably the biggest name and she co-starred with Abe Hiroshi in the fantastic mystery-comedy TRICK. Sawamura Ikki (Chief Inspector Shoukokuji) has been playing Mitsuhiko in the Asami Mitsuhiko TV adaptations based on Uchida Yasuo's novels for many years now, and Yanagiba Toshirou (Ken Ishirugi/Philip Lombard expy) was the always-frowning police bureaucrat Murai in comedic police procedural Odoru Daisousasen (Bayside Shakedown). Watase Tsunehiko (Iwamura Hyougo/Justice Wargrave) deserves a special mention. The man gave a brilliant performance, but was sadly enough not able to see viewer reception himself, as he passed away after years of suffering of cancer about a month after finishing filming, and not even two weeks before the broadcast of the special. Some of his real-life ailments were included into his character actually, making it sometimes hard to see whether his acting was really just acting, or also real. Watase played the railroad-focused Inspector Totsugawa in the TV productions between 1992-2015 based on Nishimura Kyourarou’s books.

I’ll really need to wrap this review up now as it is already way too long, but I think that this post shows the strength of this adaptation of And Then There Were None. Soshite Dare mo Inaku Natta is not a straight adaptation of the source material, and some might even disagree with the changes made to the setting, characters and the way the story is wrapped up, but one can’t deny it provides people a lot to talk about. It is a very competently-produced special, and the changes here and there are never out-of-the-blue, but there for very clear reasons that help set this production apart from other adaptations. This is a version that feels unique, that feels like the product of a team that does love the original story, but want to add something of their own to it too. As such, I feel that Soshite Dare mo Inaku Natta on the whole is an attempt that deserves discussion about its take on Christie’s evergreen.

Original Japanese title(s): Agatha Christie (原) 『そして誰もいなくなった』

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Grand Deceptions

Life is a game
So take the chance
And play your hand
You might just win
You never know
『相棒 Season 7のテーマ』
 ("Theme of Partners Season 7")

I'm not a big binge-watcher in general, but I'm also very bad at watching the shows I watch each week/whatever schedule the follow. In short: I am just bad at watching TV shows...

Aibou ("Partners") series
Aibou Eleven
Aibou 12
Aibou 13
Aibou 14 

Aibou 15

In the fourteenth season of the long-running police procedural TV drama Aibou ("Partners"), we were introduced to Kaburagi Wataru, a bureaucrat with a golden future in the Ministry of Justice who got temporarily assigned to the Metropolitan Police Department. There he made acquaintance with Sugishita Ukyou and the Special Orders Unit. Sugishita is an eccentric, but brilliant policeman who believes in justice rather than in playing political games. The SOU, which technically can't do anything without a formal order, exists especially to keep Sugishita away from normal police business, but Sugishita will stick his nose in any case that interests him. Kaburagi supported Sugishita as his partner throughout the fourteenth season and made a career change in the season finale, so at the start of Aibou 15 ("Partners 15", 2016-2017), we find Kaburagi trying to adapt to his transformation from high-ranking government official to rookie police sergeant as he and Sugishita take on new cases to solve.

Being timely with an Aibou season review is a first for this blog! Usually I only watch a series once a new season has started (each October), but this season was the first time I actually watched it more-or-less real-time. The fifteenth season ran from October 2016 to March 2017, and was also accompanied by the fourth theatrical release of the series in February 2017 (which I haven't seen, though the two-parter of this season ties in lightly with the movie it appears).

What hasn't changed much however is the formula of the Aibou series. Once again, this 18-episode long season (of which three episodes are feature-length specials) presents a fairly diverse police procedural with a distinct tone of social ommentary. That means that the crimes in this series are almost always a result of some social injustice either happening in the 'normal' society, or in 'high' society, at the level of government organizations and the politics that drive them. As an result, the average Aibou episode is basically built around two 'cores': one is a personal crime, which in turn is then shown to be connected to some bigger social problem at hand. While crimes of the first part are of course always solved (it is a police procedural), often episodes end with a darker tone as we see how underlying social and political problems still go on as always. That said though, the episodes can be quite different in tone per episode: sometimes you get an old-fashioned locked room murder, and other times it's a straight thriller or even something cozy.


As always, I'll not do a write-up of each episode, but pick out the highlights. Aibou seasons don't really feature ongoing storylines (actual planning would've made Aibou 13 a lot better), and that's the same for this season, so that also makes it easier to zoom in on some episodes. Episode 7, Fake, is a tense thriller about the abduction and murder of two children. While the forces fight against the clock to save the kids, Sugishita and Kaburagi also poke around as they feel something is off about this case, especially as the mother of one of the children is behaving in a strange manner. The premise of the double child abductions reminds of Norizuki Rintarou's Ichi no Higeki, but the conclusion is very surprising. It's a bit cheating actually, but as a human drama story, this episode had me hooked from start to finish. Episode 8, The Woman of 100%, is about Kurata Eiko, a former collegue of Kaburagi who is now known and respected as one of the best female prosecutors in Tokyo. That is also the reason why Kaburagi and Sugishita are both very curious as to the reason why she doctored the evidence in the case of a murder on a high-ranking official of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs: Kaburagi and Sugishita know the witness stated something different about witnessing the defendant in her original police statement compared to her testimony in court. The mix of classic courtroom drama mystery with police procedural and even political thriller modes is surprisingly strong for a show of just 45 minutes.


The mid-season special Return is about a town that is welcoming former convicts, offering them a place to start a new life. Sugishita and Kaburagi are given a special order to man the local police station, as for some reason several police constables have gone missing there. As a mystery story, this is a long, and rather predictable tale, but I have to say: the moment the Big Bad shows their true face, it doesn't really matter. We are seldom treated to an almost cartoon-like villain in this series, like a Joker, and to be honest, they felt a bit out of place, but man, this episode was memorable because of that person. I wonder whether they'll return in the future.

The internet plays a large role in the last two episodes. Episode 17, Last Work, is about a Youtuber who apparently has murdered someone to get more views: he is uploading his videos in parts and each parts shows more of his heinous crime of abducting and torturing a homeless man. At first, people all thought it was just a hoax, but slowly the police starts to suspect something might've really happened and things of course explode once the body of the victim is actually found. This was more a human drama-focused episode than one actually based on solving a mystery, but the use of Youtubers and the social commentary provided is quite interesting.


The final episode is a two-hour long special titled Proof of Evil. Yashiro Miwako, the calculating head of the Public Relations Section of the Metropolitan Police Department, has popped up now and then across the last few seasons, but takes center stage now the media has found out through a leak that she has a half-blood daughter she had kept hidden from the public. While normally this wouldn't be big news, suspicions are the father of the child might be a Russian spy, which would make her position in the MPD very difficult to maintain. Evidence is also found that her notebook was hacked through an e-mail sent from Kaburagi's e-mail, making him the prime suspect in the leaking scandal. The subject matter is without a doubt very timely, but as a season finale, this episode was also quite boring, especially after the bloody terrorist attack on a police academy in the previous season finale. Nobody dies here, we only see police officials trying to trace the leak and investigating the identity of the father of Yashiro's daughter and then stuff happens and it ends. The problem is there is no build in tension, nor story. The climax (which happens only after nintey minutes) is weak and over before you know it, while there are no build-up, nothing to keep your attention in the ninety minutes up to that point. It's just going on and on about the unknown father and the possibility Kaburagi leaked the information without reframing the problem in any way: it's just repeating the same point over and over. As a finale, this was a very disappointing episode, and doesn't really set-up things for the next finale in an alluring way, like previous finales did.

On the whole though, I have to say I thought Aibou 15 was a pretty weak season. Few episodes were truly entertaining, there also seemed to be fewer 'straight' mystery plot stories than previous seasons and even the three two-hour specials were much weaker than usual, either by a considerable scaling down of events, or just plain drawn-out plots. I don't expect masterpieces a whole season long, but in previous seasons, I'd usually come across one really entertaining episode every two, three episodes. This time it was more like once every five, six episodes.

Aibou hasn't really changed its formula in the fifteen seasons it has run, and that makes comparison rather easy. And that makes it painfully clear Aibou 15 is a rather weak season overall. Yes, there are a few good episodes, but way too little considering the ratio in previous episodes. Most of the season is filled with paint-by-numbers episodes, or even worse, boring, dragging two-hour specials that don't even come close to the usual spectacle and sensation we see in those episodes. Let's hope the next season (which will come without a doubt) can make up for this one.

Original Japanese title(s): 『相棒15』

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Unfinished Crime

「聖闘士には同じ技は2度通用しない」
『聖闘士星矢』

"The same technique won't work twice on a Saint."
"Saint Seiya"

A logical school mystery story based on Saint Seiya would be awesome. "No, you couldn't have killed him. You already once used all your techniques on him, and we all know the same technique doesn't work twice on a Saint: ergo you had no techniques with which you could kill him!"

In the previous two novels of Danganronpa Kirigiri, the young detectives Yui and Kirigiri learned about the Crime Victim Salvation Committee: an organization which hosts the Duel Noir, a game of detective vs murderer. The Committee provides a would-be murderer with means, methods (murder plans) and opportunity to exact their revenge, while also inviting a detective on the scene. If the detective manages to prove who the murderer is within seven days, the detective wins, and otherwise, the murderer gets away with murder. But now the Committee has set its eyes on the two detectives who have been doing surprisingly well in the Duel Noir. Yui is challenged directly by one of the top dogs of the Committee, who works as a 'producer' of murder plans for the Committee. She is given the trial of the Twelve Locked Room Temples: she has seven days to solve twelve locked room murders which are about to start. Even with the help of Kirigiri, this seems like an impossible task, so their first task is to locate the legendary detective Mikagami Rei, who might be of help to them. In a world whether neither ally, nor enemy are precisely what they seem, can Kirigiri and Yui overcome the challenge of the Twelve Temples in Kitayama Takekuni's Danganronpa Kirigiri 3 (2014)?

The third book in this spin-off series of the Danganronpa franchise, focusing on Kirigiri Kyouko in the early years of her career as a detective. Links between this series and the main Danganronpa series are fairly light, so it's quite possible to read this series on its own. You do need to read the books in order though. In fact, that is the biggest problem with Danganronpa Kirigiri 3. People used to reading comics or manga are probably familiar with the practice of storylines taking place over several volumes/issues. Longer-running manga in particular often have storylines being spread across several volumes. There is a fixed number of pages for each volume, so often, you'll find you're still in the middle of a story when a volume of Detective Conan and Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo ends: the next chapters are included in the next volume. This is a common phenomenon with ongoing comic series. You don't really see this practice with novels: sure, pocket releases of novels are often split up on two or more volumes in Japan, but that is splitting up one complete story in parts (not an ongoing story), mainly profit for maximization and convenience (bulky pockets are hard to read).

Danganronpa Kirigiri 3 however is obviously just an introduction for a bigger story. The idea of Kirigiri and Yui having to solve twelve locked room mysteries within seven days sounds like a cool set-up for a short story collection about impossible crimes, right? The thing is, it takes more than half the length of this book to even get to the starting line of this challenge. Whereas the previous two books threw you right into an interesting closed circle, impossible crime story, this book takes plenty of time to get you all excited about a trial of twelve locked room mysteries to be solved, and then it has just enough pages left for one (1!) of those murders. To be continued in the next volume. It makes this volume feel extremely empty, because there is basically only one short mystery story here, and the rest is just set-up for something that isn't even resolved in this volume, and I'm not even sure it'll be resolved in the next volume. Sure, there's some other things going on too, mostly revolving around the identity of Mikagami Rei, whom Kirigiri and Yui need to find to even stand a chance to win the challenge, but it's fairly light material. Again, a story split over multiple volumes is a very common practice for ongoing comics, not so for novels. As it is now, it's a very unbalanced book on its own, as there's just too little.

Oh, by the way, the Twelve Locked Room Temples, that is indeed a reference to the anime/manga classic Saint Seiya, where the best known story arc, the Sanctuary Arc, is about our band of heroes who have to pass through Twelve Temples and defeat the twelve guardian Gold Saints there within twelve hours. So Danganronpa Kirigiri 3 feels like the story ends after they passed by the Aries or Taurus Temple.

The one impossible crime they do solve in this volume is good though, even if the pace's a bit hasty because of the fewer page count reserved for the story, compared to the previous two volumes. The murder reminds of Yokomizo Seishi's classic Honjin Satsujin Jiken, with a man being stabbed with a sword in a locked room of the annex of a traditional Japanese manor. In fact, it is obviously inspired by that story, but Kitayama wouldn't Kitayama if he didn't come up with a genius murder trick for this story. It's ridiculous, in the good sense of the word, and I myself thought it was highly original too, as I had never seen something similar before. There's a reason why Kitayama is feared for his rather mechanical impossible crime plots, and this is an outstanding example of the things he comes up with. It's not all perfect though, as the way Kirigiri deduces who the murderer was, was rather weak, which both Kirigiri and the author seem to acknowledge, as the actual 'proof' comes from the old 'make them slip up' ending that is seldom satisfying.

To be honest, I hesitated about writing the review for this particular volume. It is obviously only part of one single story. It is uneven, because I'm missing a very large chunk of the bigger picture. But then I think: 'But this book is being sold as a standalone book. And the previous two volumes were also part of an ongoing storyline, but also managed to be perfectly fine standalone books.' So I think potential readers should be made aware that this is an incomplete story. Danganronpa Kirigiri 3 does not work on its own.

There is little more I have to comment on Danganronpa Kirigiri 3. It has a great concept, it has a decent short impossible crime, but it is also incomplete. Despite the price of the book, you're getting maybe the first half of a story. And that's not really nice. I see a lot of potential to do something fantastic with the Twelve Locked Room Temples gimmick, but I guess we'll need to read the next volume to see if it really works out.

Original Japanese title(s):  北山猛邦 『ダンガンロンパ 霧切り3』

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The Magic Book

一万年と二千年前から愛してる
八千年過ぎた頃からもっと恋しくなった
「創聖のアクエリオン」(Akino)

I've been loving for ten and two thousand years
I yearned for you even more after eight thousand years
"Genesis of Aquarion" (Akino)

I have a lot of books, but I am not a collector (I am a reader). I think the oldest book I have is De Geheimzinnige Japanees (review here), which is probably over a hundred years old (can't find the exact publishing year), but I only have that thing because I wanted to read the story, not to own an  old book.

Many clients of attorney Morie Shunsaku can be deemed 'memorable', but Kuga'numa Eijirou was one of the more unique ones. His first job for Morie was a simple one: to draw up a will. For his second problem however, he did not need the attorney Morie, but the famed amateur detective Morie. Morie is to look into an old manuscript Kuganuma got his hands on: the manuscript appears to be have been used as a journal by six different persons from different places, over a period of three hundred years: the earliest part dates from 1700 and was written by a traveler in the East, while the last entry dates from as late as in 1937. What ties this six records together is that each of them contain an unsolved mystery: from a murder that couldn't have been committed because the suspect had a perfect alibi, to a walking set of armor that vanishes from a locked room in a second. Morie is supposed to look into the book, but that is not his only problem, because his client is killed right after he left Morie's offices, shot down in a cul-de-sac, of which the entrance was observed by Morie's assistant and with no footprints left in the snow by either the victim, nor the murderer. Can Morie solve all the unsolved riddles that lie before him in Ashibe Taku's Sanbyakunen no Nazobako ("A Three Hundred Year Old Box of Mysteries", 2005)?

The Morie Shunsaku series is Ashibe Taku's main series, featuring an attorney who also works as an amateur detective. Sometimes, his sleuthing is part of his main job, like in Saibanin Houtei, but he is just as likely to accidently stumble upon a mystery, like in The Castle of Grand Guignol. Ashibe basically uses the character for a variety of stories, meaning you never really know what you can expect from a Morie Shunsaku novel until you've started with it. Sanbyakunen no Nazobako lies somewhere in between the extremes: he was asked to solve the mysteries recorded in the book in his role as an amateur detective, but it's his obligation to his client (and curiosity) that has him go into the murder of Kumagawa.

Sanbyakunen no Nazobako is by any standards a very unique book. It is basically a story-within-a-story (or to be precise: six-stories-within-a-story), with the Morie Shunsaku narrative bookending the six stories recorded in the book. These six stories have no direct connection with each other: they are set in different times, different places and with different characters. We start off with a story about a traveler in the East in 1709 for example, but the next story is about the pirate ship the Sea Serpent in South-East Asia in 1721, while the one after that is in set in China in 1793. Each of these stories belong to a different genre. From a swashbuckling adventure to a Western to an record of an expedition in Africa: every story is unique and on the whole interesting enough to read on their own. Diversity is something that is defintely not lacking in Sanbyakunen no Nazobako.

The stories are obviously also mystery stories (or else I wouldn't be discussing it). The mysteries featured in the stories vary from impossible disappearances and murders to alibi tricks. What makes these narratives unique though is that the mysteries remain mostly unsolved within each seperate record. While some minor mysteries are solved, often the biggest question remains unanswered. Morie doesn't solve all of the stories until the very end of the book, in the final chapter. A problem here is that most of the mysteries aren't really that inspired. I'd say that this partly because of the unique set-up of this book. You have six stories that all feature a minimum of two mysteries (one to be solved within the narrative, one to be left unsolved until the end of the book), plus the murder in the bookend chapters. That's thirteen different mysteries and solutions. And that's not even the whole problem.

For the true unique feature is that Morie eventually explains each of the six unsolved mysteries at the end of the book and shows that each of the mysteries actually had a common factor, one that is even shared with his own murder case. So this book features thirteen problems that need to be solved, seven of which also need to have a common factor. The result however is that each of the problems is rather simple and not particularly exciting. Part of the reason why I'm not doing summaries on each of the short stories is in fact because the stories are so short, and the premises behind the problems so simple I don't think I could do a meaningful summary without spoiling something. Anyway, the solutions are usually so simple that not once do you really feel catharsis when a century old riddle is solved, and some are actually bad (the one in the story set in Beijing is ridiculous). None of the problems really have the time to build up tension because of the large number of stories. The book is certainly not short, so perhaps it would've been better if there had been less, but longer stories that could provide more complex mysteries. The fact each of the stories end with an unsolved mystery is also a bit... irritating. While you know the solution will come at the very end of the book, the fact each time you 'reset' everything (new setting/characters) for each story makes the wait for the conclusion feel even longer.

The 'connection' between the various mysteries is also suspect, at best. The common factor that Morie identifies, and which becomes a clue for his own case, feels very forced, as it almost requires Adam West Batman-logic to identify that factor in some of the stories. This hurts the overall book, because the premise is that Morie solves the six records, recognizes a pattern and applies that to his case: if the pattern is not obvious, the conclusion will fall flat.

While I don't think the experiment was a great succes, I do really like the idea behind Sanbyakunen no Nazobako. A lot of the books I've read by Ashibe Taku incorporate elements from the bibliomystery genre, and as this book is all about solving a crime through the reading of secondary texts, I think lovers of the bibliomystery genre can appreciate the effort. I also think the first story, A New Venetian Night's Entertainment, is really great as a bibliomystery. The 'murder mystery' is rather easy to solve, but the deeper reading of this text by Morie at the conclusion was fantastic. Very occasionally I see mystery stories do something similar, and when it's done well, it's really satisfying.
 
Sanbyakunen no Nazobako is a fantastic example of a great idea, but where the execution lacked. It definitely has some great moments as a bibliomystery, and it won't bore as each narrative gives you something new, but as a mystery novel it feels lacking, especially considering how absolutely great this book would've been if the concept had been executed perfectly. It might be going a bit too far to call it a missed opportunity, but there was definitely more that could've come out of this idea.

Original Japanese title(s): 芦辺拓 『三百年の謎匣』

Friday, March 10, 2017

On The Rocks

Crime, it's the way I fly to you (Snake Eater) 
"Snake Eater" (Cynthia Harrel)

Yes, yes, I know, I'm behind with my Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo R ("The Young Kindaichi Case Files R") reviews... Today's volume was released back in November... Oh, and now for something completely different, but apparently I'm already over 700 posts here on the blog.

The White Snake Brewery Murder Case, a story collected in volumes 10 and 11 of Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo R, starts with Inspector Kenmochi traveling together with Hajime and Miyuki to the village of Hakuja, as the police has received information a murderer-on-the-run might be hiding there. The village is the home of a particular, white-ish water source, which has a tendency to 'twist' when it's flowing, resembling a white snake. The spirit of the White Snake is said to watch over the village, and the White Snake Sake brewed here, which uses the white mineral water as a key ingredient, has brought prosperity to the villagers for many decades. Hajime and the other, pretending to be normal tourists, attend a tour of the White Snake Sake Brewery, which also allows them to take a peek at the inner sanctum of the brewery, where the moromi (the main mash) is allowed to further ferment. But then the body of a recently returned son of the brewery owner is found inside one of the mash containers. Is this the work of the murderer Inspector Kenmochi is chasing, or is something else going on at the White Snake Sake Brewery?

First thing that I noticed: while Hajime is indeed the grandson of Kindaichi Kousuke, and a brilliant young detective himself, who has shown countless of times throughout the series that he's great at solving mysteries, you do have to wonder what Inspector Kenmochi was thinking when he decided to take two high school students along on his mission to find, and capture, a desperate murderer on the run in a remote village. Usually Hajime and Miyuki get involved with murder cases by accident, so there's little you can do about that, but I think there might be some problems about a high-ranking police detective taking minors along on a dangerous task.

Though I have to say that in general, The White Snake Brewery Murder Case is actually a very weak story. It is eleven chapters long, which is the norm for long stories in this series, but it feels barely any denser in terms of actual content than a short story. The obi of this volume says "One Of The Most Complex Cases Of This Series, Completed!" about this story, but The White Snake Brewery Murder Case is in fact probably one of the simplest stories of the series. The solution to the problem of the corpse in the container is incredibly obvious from the start. It is very likely the first thing that pops in mind once you're presented with the whole setting, and I kept hoping it was just a red herring, but alas, it turned out the simple, least original solution was indeed the correct one. This on its own doesn't mean disaster though, as a good mystery writer can, with effort, weave different ideas and plots together to make a whole stronger than its parts, but I think series writer Amagi was on an off-day, because the other elements of the mystery plot proper were as poorly inspired as the main trick. From the way the murderer gives themselves away, to the often-seen 'psychological trap' Hajime uses to prove who the murderer is: the ideas themselves are poor, and it all feels like disjointed ideas, rather than a whole story.

There is for example a whole back story surrounding the family of the owner of the brewery, which is supposed to spring all kinds of surprises on the reader, but it fails miserably at that task as once again, the most obvious, the simplest answer to any question always turns out to be the correct one. There's nothing tricky about this plot, nor anything that feels like it was constructed to entertain the reader.

And what I lament the most is perhaps how the setting goes to waste. Save for film sets, 'normal' work places are not very commonly used as a setting in this series actually, at least not for the longer stories (they do feature more ofen in the short stories). While The White Snake Brewery Murder Case is not the first long story to feature such a location, it is still rare enough for me to notice it, as usually Hajime and Miyuki find themselves in more unique (and often isolated) locales. This type of setting is much more in Detective Conan, as The Sleeping Kogorou is hired by clients from various backgrounds. The White Snake Brewery Murder Case can be fairy informative about how sake is brewed (if you're a total amateur like me), which is always one of the things I like about these kinds of specialist settings, but to have it used on a bland mystery plot....

Of all the stories ever since the series returned with Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo R started in 2014, The White Snake Brewery Murder Case is probably the worst, as the mystery plot is by far the least inspired. Everything is too obvious, even it is not even entertaining in its obviousness, as the presentation of the plot and the way the clues are presented are rather crude (c.f. Gyakuten Kuukou, a book written for children and very simple, yet plotted and structured in a very good manner). I can only hope volume 12, to be released in April, will be return to form for this series.

Original Japanese title(s): 天樹征丸(原)、さとうふみや(画) 『金田一少年の事件簿R』第10&11巻

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

On The Lake Shore

水のない晴れた海へ
たたどり着いたwhite mermaid
「水のない晴れた海へ」(Garnet Crow)

Towards the sunny sea with no water
Arriving there is a white mermaid
"Mizu no nai hareta umi he" (Garnet Crow)

Time for another Lupin!

Raoul d’Avenac is one night visited by a mysterious woman, Catherine, who pleads for help. Apparently, something sinister is going on in her home, and only Raoul can save her. At the same time, Raoul gets a call by brigadier Théodore Béchoux, who also wants Raoul's help with the investigation of a mysterious murder. It appears that mysterious visitor and Béchoux are both involved in the same case, so Raoul decides to help Catherine. As for why both Catherine and Béchoux want this gentleman's help: for most people is just a well-known gentleman often seen at parties. But a select few know that Raoul is in fact the private detective Jim Barnett, who in turn is actually the famous thief Arsène Lupin. Raoul/Lupin brings the woman to her home, where her sister Betrande is. The Barre-y-va mansion was given its name because it stands on a hill near the river Aurelle: the tide makes the Aurelle overflow, and the water reaches just until the hill, hence the name "the tide goes there". Here Raoul learns a great many deal: apparently an impossible murder has been committed on Catherine's brother-in-law during her absence, with Béchoux himself being a witness to how the poor man was gunned down by an invisible assailant who disappeared from the little island the two men were on. With a mysterious figure also making attempts at Catherine's life, Lupin has quite a lot to do in Maurice Leblanc's La Barre-y-va (1930).

And yes, I read the Japanese translation of the book. To be precise: the Minami Youichirou translation. As I've explained in this post, the Minami translations are aimed at children, so they are usually rewritten to be more concise, simpler in structure and easier to read. The Japanese title of this book is Lupin to Kaijin (Lupin and the Fiend), and according to what I could find, it appears that this particular translation placed more emphasis on Lupin's battle with the unknown fiend, and removed a romantic subplot surrounding Lupin.

I enjoyed Victor, de la Brigade Mondaine a lot as a novel in the famous Lupin series, as an entry that did something different. La Barre-y-va in contrast feels a lot more familiar. Lupin helping a damsel in distress, a mysterious adversary for Lupin to fight with, the legacy of Catherine and Bertrande's grandfather hidden away somewhere which needs some code cracking: none of these elements are particularly original to the series, and because of that, the whole reading experience feels like déjà vu. Even the (not really) shocking ending is very similar to a previous Lupin novel. La Barre-y-va feels stale, predictable and not original. It's one of the last Lupin novels published during Leblanc's lifetime, and while I praised Victor, de la Brigade Mondaine for still being original despite being a very late Lupin novel, La Barre-y-va is precisely the opposite.

The book starts with an interesting impossible murder situation: Catherine's brother-in-law is shot down by an unseen assailant from a pigeon house on a little island, only accessible by a little rickety bridge. Béchoux and other witnesses had the whole island in sight as Béchox made his way to the victim and searched the pigeon house and island, but he came out empty-handed. The solution to the murder however is laughable and very unlikely it wouldn't have been found out immediately. Leblanc has written much better, and more satisfying impossible situation stories than this one.

And I guess I could write a bit more about Lupin's encounters with the mysterious figure, or the final solution to all the mysteries that happened around the Barre-y-va mansion, but in the end, it all comes down to this: La Barre-y-va is not one of Leblanc's best efforts, and he has written other books that employ the same elements, but better. So why bother with this one?

I've only a handful of unread Lupin novels left, and I guess this is what usually happens when you're reading a long-running series: unless there's some chronology involved, you often read the best books first, so as times passes, you're bound to come across the less entertaining books. La Barre-y-va is definitely a good example of that. I'm not sure when I'll get to the last of the unread Lupins, but let's hope they are more fun than this one.

Original Japanese title(s): モーリス・ルブラン(原)、南洋一郎(訳) 『ルパンと怪人』

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Lost Shadow

気楽なアプリが画面を埋め尽くして
視界まで遮る 愛しい人の姿あさえ
「2012Spark」(ポルノグラフィティ)

Screens are buried in handy apps
Blocking our sights, even the figures of our loved ones
"2012Spark" (Porno Graffiti)

I have visited Shinjuku in the past, and I know it's a very different place in real life, but I have to admit, I still love the romanticized version of it in fiction like the Ryuu ga Gotoku (Yakuza) games, City Hunter/Angel Heart and the Tantei Jinguuji Saburou games.

In the two months since the first attack, at the start of summer, numerous people have been assaulted in the city of Shinjuku. While all victims managed to survive their attacks, the police still has no idea as to the identity of the assailant is. Because the attacker manages to disappear as fast as they appear, rumors that a ghost is behind these attacks start to spread across Shinjuku. One day, private detective Jinguuji Saburou is visited in his office by Itou Mizuho, a beautiful girl with a strange request: she wants Jinguuji to stop the Ghost of Shinjuku, to protect a friend of hers. Mizuho isn't ready to give Jinguuji all the details yet, and wants to take some time to think it over, but that same night she falls to her death from a building: she had been caught redhanded as the Ghost of Shinjuku herself, looking down at her latest victim, and had fled to the roof and fallen off it, but not before admitting to the police she was indeed the Ghost. Jinguuji however can not believe that Mizuho was really the attacker, and decides to take on her request anyway in Kodaka Kazutaka's Tantei Jinguuji Saburou: Shinjuku no Bourei ("Detective Jinguuji Saburou: The Ghost of Shinjuku", 2006).

The Tantei Jinguuji Saburou series is a long-running video game series which celebrates its thirtieth birthday this year. The first game was one of the first adventure games for the Famicom (NES) to be made for an adult audience, with a hardboiled detective as the protagonist who had his home base in Shinjuku, home of the shadow side of society. I have reviewed most of the games on this blog, by the way. Shinjuku no Bourei is one of the novels based on the series and was written by Kodaka Kazutaka. He is now best known as the creator and writer of the Danganronpa game series, but he used to work as a freelance game scenario writer before he was hired by Spike-Chunsoft and has written the scenarios for several of the mobile phone games of Tantei Jinguuji Saburou. He also wrote two novels based on the games, the one discussed in this post, and 2007's Kagayakashii Mirai.

Shinjuku no Bourei is by far the longest of the original novels based on the games, and the extra length really pays off. I did enjoy Kagayakashii Mirai, but it was definitely a bit hasty, but Shinjuku no Bourei is about twice the length (it's two volumes long) and the result is a story that follows a structure very similar to the mobile phone games, with basically a four act set-up. The story revolves around Jinguuji's investigation in the true nature of Mizuho's request, as well as the identity of the Ghost of Shinjuku, but it doesn't take long for the detective to step on some toes he shouldn't have stepped on, and the case quickly escalates into something much bigger than he had expected. Like in the games, Jinguuji needs to make good use of his friends within both the proper authorities, as well as within the underworld to advance, and like a good old hardboiled detective, he sometimes also needs to use some violence to get himself out of trouble. This story in particular features some new characters (both friendly and less so) whom I'd loved to see in the games. There's not that much of a mystery for the reader, as I think that the plot becomes quite obvious fairly early in the story, but it's seeing how things develop, and how the truth comes out that is interesting here (and what's usually the case in the games).

I also loved that this novel featured more of the extended cast of the games. Kagayashii Mirai focused on Jinguuji, and to a lesser extent his assistant Youko, but we also see police inspector Kumano and yakuza gang leader Imaizumi in this novel, who have always been a major part of the series since early on. It helps make the novel feel like it's really part of the series, having these familiar faces pop up at the right time.
 
While the realistic, hardboiled setting of the Tantei Jinguuji Saburou games is as far as you can get from the psycho-pop puzzle plot courtroom drama mystery that is Danganronpa, it's interesting to see some themes Kodaka used here seemed like a very early version of themes he'd also use in Danganronpa (as well as Detective Conan & Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo, which he also wrote). It's not a rehash, but you could see how some themes used in this book eventually evolved into a (minor) element featured in the Danganronpa series. Funny thing is that I had already played Kodaka's Jinguuji Saburou games, Detective Conan & Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo and the Danganronpa series by the time I first heard that Kodaka was responsible for all these games. It's the same with TV productions: these are often produced by very large teams, so sometimes you don't notice the scenario writer.

Do I think non-fans of the Tantei Jinguuji Saburou series will also enjoy this book? Well, not really. It's not a bad novel by any means, but while I myself did enjoy the book, this novel doesn't succeed really at conveying the atmosphere of the series. By which I mean: a lot of the atmosphere from the games comes from the visual aspect, as well as the (fantastic) music. And when fans read this book, they'll have a good sense of the 'feeling' this book is going for, as their imagination will provide support. But without that knowledge, without knowing how the Tantei Jinguuji Saburou usually looks and sounds like, I'd say the writing of this novel is a bit too to-the-point to really leave an impression on its own merits. It's not bad, it's just that the prose is a bit too basic.

As a fan of the seris though, I really did enjoy Tantei Jinguuji Saburou: Shinjuku no Bourei. It really feels like a story you'd expect to see in one of the games, and that is usually the one thing novels based on games have to succeed in. The prose is a bit sparse, but the plot is entertaining, featuring some great characters that fit perfectly within the whole world of Tantei Jinguuji Saburou. Recommended material for those who want to see more of the veteran detective outside of the game medium. A new Tantei Jinguuji Saburou game will be released later this year for the Nintendo 3DS to celebrate the franchise's 30th anniversary by the way, and you can definitely expect a review of that game popping up in due time.

Original Japanese title(s): 小高和剛 『探偵神宮寺三郎 新宿の亡霊」(上下)