Sunday, October 21, 2018

Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc

"Mystery is the antagonist of truth. It is a fog of human invention, that obscures the truth, and represents it in distortion."
- Thomas Paine 

Makoto Naegi is a boy who calls himself the most average guy that a guy can get, but yet, despite all this he has gotten an invitation letter to get into the greatest academy around the block that guarantees sure success in life after you graduate; The Hope's Peak Academy. The weird part of Makoto getting and invitation is that every other person in there is said to be "the absolute best/ultimate" at something (very similar to Kubikiri Cycle, probably some kind of popular japanese writing trope to garner interest by overblowing everything) - modelling, being a bike-gang leader, literature writing, you name it... As Makoto heads inside the academy to investigate as no one is around, he loses focus and everything goes black. As he wakes up in a class room with windows bolted tight with thick steel plates, he finds a paper saying that "from this point on, this academy will be your life."

For this review we'll be looking at Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc, the first installment in the Danganronpa investigation-mystery game series. It was created by Spike Co. Ltd in 2010 for the handheld PSP console. The genre cocktail of the game is very similar to the story Ripper (1994) by Michael Slade; it's a mix of the slasher sub-genre and the murder mystery genre, inspired by series such as Saw and a couple popular golden age detective fiction series. Half of the gameplay happens while moving in 3D, where the player is looking for clues, while the story plays and moves forward in the visual novel format. It's very similar to the Kyle Hyde game series in it's investigative format and the Ace Attorney game series in everything else.

Aside from Makoto, in the Hope's Peak Academy there are 14 others that appear at first and they all claim to have lost consciousness during entering the academy as well, and they had gotten their phones taken from them as well. Every one of the other students have overly quirky personalities, weird designs and an "ultimate" trait to them to make them stand out. Most of them are not that well realized as real characters though.

Kiyotaka Ishimaru a crazy "class rep"-type of guy who follows the rules absolutely.
Toko Fukawa, a girl who wrote a novel when she was 10 years old and got everyone to speak of her. she's said to have written masterpieces; literary works that reach top-seller lists. As a character she's quick to jump to conclusions and gets very angry about what she thinks people think of her.
Sayaka Maizono, the ultimate pop sensation and a lead singer of a band.
Leon Kuwata, the "ultimate baseball star" who has never gone to a single practise and hates baseball. He's the type that dyes his hair to show off and
Hifumi Yamada, the "ultimate fanfic creator" is a fat guy who believes that he's unappreciated in this time due to his hobby not being appreciated.
Aoi Asahina, "ultimate swimming pro" is a tanned easy-going girl.
Chihiro Fujisaki, the "ultimate programmer" is a girl who apologizes easily.
Kyoko Kirigiri, a girl who's not willing to talk about her specialities.
Junko Enoshima, "ultimate fashionista" a girl who's not a pretty as in her photoshopped cover pictures on magazines.
Mondo Owada, the "ultimate biker gang leader," a man with your usual biker gang member looks, the large-sized pompadour.
Sakura Ogami, "ultimate martial artist" is a person who looks like an ogre with scars on her - she IS female, yes, surprisingly.
Byakuya Togami, "ultimate affluent progeny," a boy that is the heir to his family's large conglomerate. He doesn't think of our main character to be on his level.
Yauhiro Hagakure, the "ultimate clairvoyant." A guy with a messy hair. He's 21.
Celestia Ludenberg, the  "ultimate gambler." Also known as Celeste, a gothic lolita clothes-lover who has never lost a bet. She's known as the ultimate liar.

The entrance ceremony is to happen at the gymnasium. A teddy colored black and white with a large belly button named Monokuma calls himself the school's headmaster. The bear just happens to be the type of person who wants to see people despair. He pushes the students to try and commit violent acts on others, even as far as to try and give them motives. And here's the thing: there is no ending to this school-life. The students will have to live their communal lives until the day they die. However there is a "graduation clause" which allows a person to leave - "you must kill somebody if you want to leave." The hope's peak academy is about despair to Monokuma, but, is someone remote-controlling the bear?

School regulation list:
Regulation one: Students may reside only within the school. Leaving campus is an unacceptable use of time.
Regulation two: "Nighttime" is from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. Some areas are off-limits at night, so please exercise caution.
Regulation three: Sleeping anywhere other than the dormitory will be seen as sleeping in class and punished accordingly.
Regulation four: With minimal restrictions, you are free to explore Hope's Peak Academy at your discretion.
Regulation five: Violence against Headmaster Monokuma is strictly prohibited, as is destruction of surveillance cameras.
Regulation six: Anyone who kills a fellow student and becomes "blackened" will graduate, unless they are discovered.
Regulation seven: Additional school regulations may be added as necessary.

The school has rules, and if you try to break them, there will be dire consequences... For example as Mondo Owada tried to hurt Monokuma, the bear exploded.

In the dormitory part of the academy every one of the 15 students have a room assigned to themselves with their personal bathrooms. Each room has a lock and the girls' bathrooms have locks as well. Similar to dating simulator games or Persona (3 and up) games you can spend time with the other students to get closer to them, during the Free Time stages of the day. The "school life" is basically only dormitory life. The morning time begins with 7 a.m. and the nighttime with 10 p.m.

Rumours take place between the students about a serial killer named Genocide Jack who murders their victims in cold blood in bizarre ways and leave a message of "bloodlust" which is drawn at the crime scene with the blood of their victims. He disappears and appears without a trace. Could the person behind this be Genocide Jack?

The second halves of the "cases" in Danganronpa feature self made trials by Monokuma in the Hope's Peak Academy where you have to figure out the killer, who happens to be one of the 15 students, via a popular vote. The killer is what is called "blackened." You figure the killer out and they will die, you fail and point at an innocent and everyone else dies, alot of pink gets spilled and the culprit gets to "graduate," in other words they get allowed to leave the premises.
The trial room has 16 seats despite there being 15 students. The characters point out the potential holes and facts about the case in a nonstop debate and it's the player's job to expose the truth with "Truth Bullets" in other words overglorified evidence from investigations. The trials end with a part where you re-enact the crime by adding what happened in the correct order with comic-book panels.

The first trial is incredibly simple. A murder happened in one of the rooms; the room in which is happens should be obvious to the played due to a certain set up with a door, with a scooby doo-tier dying message being found on the wall of the bathroom. I figured out the culprit immediately during the investigation and had my suspicion confirmed by yet another clue in the trash can area of the school so it was definitely lackluster especially due the investigation+trial taking some hours to complete, and they tried to forcefully make it seem like there were numerous twists even though it was all rather obvious, basically more overglorified gameplay to try to make mediocre ideas stand out, but many first cases in games tend to be worse than the rest - the first three Ace Attorney games have those after all.

After the trial ends there will be punishment - as I said before, manage to find out the culprit and the culprit/"blackened" gets the punishment for being found out instead of getting to graduate with everyone else dying. The punishment happens in animated format where the blackened get killed in very overblown ways by Monokuma. And after the punishment, a new area will open in the school for the students to visit, containing even something like a swimming pool.

Makoto finds a letter in the second floor's library that is supposedly from Hope's Peak Academy officials who claim that certain "serious issues" were the reason why the Academy has actually been Closed. In other words the mastermind behind the killing games must know these reasons because they were capable of taking advantage of the situation and remodel the school to their likings.
- Monokuma seems to be better than NASA's machines.
- The Mastermind must be a powerful individual to be able to make the despair game a reality.

The second case and trial has to do with the body of one of the 15 students being found suspended in air inside the girls' locker room in the newly opened area. Could the killer be the infamous Genocide Jack? Byakuya surely believes that as he needs Makoto's help to solve the case.
The second case was definitely better than the first, although the set-up still had a certain part to it which just felt as if it had to be connected to the murder without any seeming reason and it was brought up only again at the final culprit reveal so I knew that either of the two had to be the culprit, because that part was not brought up again - until they spoke about trust and the victim, which made it pretty clear to me who had done it. However, the case has two misdirections to it, nothing that special but still enough to throw people off the loop and make it more interesting. The Genocide Jack part of the story was lackluster though in my opinion. The case definitely helps to make Byakuya a standout character from the rest though.

After the end of the second trial more of an overarching story begins to arise related to the true culprit behind Monokuma; a shadowy figure who might be one of the supposed-to-be-dead students appears to be talking to Monokuma and is said to be one of his old friends. Also they talk about the "sixteenth student" we have not seen.
Many areas open up after the 2nd trial as well - sculpture room, room with a billiard table, some kind of room with boxes and a room with an air purifier.

The build-up of the third case includes an artificial intelligence. Chihiro had fixed a broken laptop they'd found a while ago and inserted an Alter Ego into it to analyze the secret files that may give our heroes an upper hand against the mastermind, but the files are well protected and it takes a while to hack through them, but then it just so happens that the laptop goes missing with more than one suspect who could have done it.
Then Monokuma himself appears and tells the students that $10 000 000 will be the graduation reward.
The third case itself is about a person in a robot suit attacking people with numbered hammers. The first hammer is small and numbered "1" up to "3" and "4" when two victims are found dead. "3" hammer victim in the first floor, "4" hammer victim in the back of the third floor. Then the body of the victim of the "3" hammer disappeared and soon the victim of the "4" hammer on the 3rd floor disappeared after everyone went to the first floor.

By the books misdirection in this case. Incredibly easy to figure out how the case will fold while playing as it had barely any originality to it. It worked in novel format with works such as Death on the Nile by Christie and The Dutch Shoe Mystery by Queen but not here where everything is visual. You have to be able to take advantage of the medium when you think of the kinds of cases to create - here the idea was simply copied from a novel format into a game and the case had a pretty poor misdirection to it related to the assumed murder weapons. I let the first case go without much critisizing because it's a warm-up albeit a rather long one, but this third case... Unacceptably long and dragged out pacing for such an obvious turn of events. I literally knew everything they would do in this case, every trick and twist before they even happened, because it must be written while following some kind of "trope book" orders. Pathetic. Goddamn pathetic for its length.

The third case ends with the supposed reveal of Monokuma's Spy.

After the third trial, the fourth floor of Hope's Peak Academy opens up and the artificial intelligence Alter Ego has something to say about the school. A year ago "the most terrifying event to happen to humanity" went on in Hope's Peak Academy which made the school decide to make a project where the students live in there for the rest of their lives. Just like what Monokuma is trying to do for the rest of their lives. The headmaster, a man in his late 30's, was who approved of the program, and according to Alter Ego, he may still be in the school.

The fourth case of the series has to do with a locked room murder in the rec room, the place with a billiard table. The door was locked by moving a chair in front of it from the inside.
The fourth case is somewhat decent. Althought the culprit is pretty easy to guess due to yet again a mention of a certain thing taking place right before the crime and then the stretching of that vital clue up until the final moment - you can easily point the finger at the right person - but there were, not exactly misdirections, but series of coincidences which took place at the same time that lead up to the "moment of death." Those coincidences help to add some content to the case that make it more interesting, however, they are pretty much impossible to figure out until the people related to them explain what happened in the courtroom, so they were used to try to throw the player off the right track. However, the real murder method was obvious from the very very beginning and that part really annoyed me. The characters act as if these simplest things take alot of deducting to do for some reason and it takes hours of dragging out until they figure it out. The one who gets Punished at the end of the fourth trial is kind of a surprise I guess.

The beginning of the fifth case opens up a brand new floor, the fifth floor. With a locked bio-lab, a classroom with some kind of old murder scene filled with white chalc marks of human shapes as well as RED blood (wow!) all over the place, and a large garden room filled with plantations, even a massive human-eating plant. That room has five healthy chickens in it as well.

Toko found a knife and the remaining group of students gave it to Makoto who put it in one of the drawers of his room's desk. Makoto caught up with a fever and fell asleep. The first time he woke up was when a person with a mask was in his room with a knife, then everything goes black. Then he wakes up again to see Kyoko there but can't hear what she says, then again, everything goes black. When Makoto wakes up in the morning he notices that the knife that he'd taken for safekeeping has gone missing. Then, Makoto finds Monokuma who is being torn apart by the others. The robot bear has stopped working so the group comes into the conclusion that something unexpected must have happened to the mastermind. While going to the Garden to get a pickaxe to take down the headmaster's room door, the group finds a person with a mask murdered with knife in his stomach. When trying to take the mask off, the person's body exploded, making it so that it's impossible to tell who it was, but it's possible to tell that the corpse was a female.
So in this fifth case our MC, Makoto, is considered the prime suspect by the cast just in like the first case however this time it's better.
The trial ends unexpectedly, however, it's not a finished product. I'm not sure what to say about it. Had a decent build up but things were not really made to make sense for the player and the end kind of goes against the whole scheme of the trials. Feels kind of like a waste of such a unique setting, what was going on with that large flower...? Meh...

The fifth chapter has to do with two things: re-doing the trial of Mukuro, the hidden sixteenth student who was found dead in the garden on the fifth floor in order to expose the Mastermind, and in order to "win" the finale the remaining group of students also has to expose all of the mysteries surrounding the school as well, such as the "worst thing to happen to humanity" related to it.
For the fifth case, out of making it "fair" for the players, Monokuma opened every single locked door in the school for the characters to explore in order to find the truth behind the mysteries of Hope's Peak Academy and the identity of the true mastermind.

The sixth and final trial deals with the fifth trial which did not have a fair trial back then, which is heavily tied to uncovering the secret identity of the Mastermind and the person behind Monokuma, as well as the mysteries surrounding the school. The player at this point has the access to every place in the game and every information required to pinpoint the truth about these questions. The final case and trial as of themselves are... fine. As I mentioned the sixth chapter's "case" is basically just the trial as it's a repeat of the fifth case; figure out the death of the sixteenth student. And the answer to that case is mentioned to the player hours before the sixth trial; it's done at the end of the fifth trial, and the fifth trial did not do justice to the set-up of the case in the first place.
We learn major plot twists about the meaning of the Hope's Peak Academy, The Tragedy which happened a year ago etc. However the "truth" is just far too grand. It all mostly makes sense in the series's settings and it's all something that the player undoubtedly has to have as a thought at the back of their head throughout the game, sure, but it's also impossible and obvious; both effective ways to make the interest towards the story and game wane off pretty hard.

 The planning of this game is mostly lackluster because of the pacing. Obvious things are made to seem like huge plot twists, obvious answers to questions drag on for hours. The main character is a generic lazy template and the motivations of the Mastermind are bad.
The story is also written in a far too mechanical way for a game. The ideas are taken from cases that fit shorter stories.

Now the gameplay itself looks very nice. Character models bounce on the screen and look different and the artwork is great. The school structure and the maps as well as the somewhat limited free time to spend with getting to know the other students is a decent add-on to the game, however, I said it looks cool, nothing more. It doesn't take any time loading the screens which makes it acceptable for a gameplay that doesn't drag (if only the story was like that), but there is nothing really to "do." Even though you move the character in 3D, akin the Kyle Hyde mystery games, every action you do in order to figure something out or hand something to others is "automated." It happens automatically, you don't have to think about what to do yourself so that you can move forward in the game - all you have to do is investigate every nook and cranny, read the dialogue, then get to the trial with really easy cases, as in everything is far too obvious aside from the second case which was decent enough despite being somewhat draggy. The trials themselves have multiple different modes to them in order to corner the culprit and make them more interesting, but they are ultimately simply wasted on a lackluster story.

Summary about my thoughts on the cases:
Chapter 1: Bad case and everything about it was like an open book, however because it's the first case&trial to kickstart the game, I avoid bashing it too much. The C&T format does not fit this case - and it does not work perfectly for any cases in the game either despite being the part the series is known for - at all due to how much it unnecessarily drags on until things are allowed to get revealed.
Chapter 2: Decent case, pacing problems. Best case in the game, does not mean much though.
Chapter 3: Bad case, worst offender of god-awfully obvious writing if you are familiar with the tropes of the genre (from many novels including Death on the Nile by Christie and the Dutch Shoe Mystery by Queen), the third case and trial have the worst pacing due to nothing unexpected happening in it.
Chapter 4: Okay case. Badly handled timings for the clues, the case utilizes coincidences to throw the player out of the loop - the truth of the killer itself is obvious however and nothing changes that fact despite the writer's attempts at misdirection.
Chapter 5: Bad case. The setting for this one was the best but it's wasted. The meaning of the Danganronpa game itself is just practically thrown out of the window after Chp 4. The fifth trial does not end the case either and it's done in a lackluster way.
Chapter 6: OK investigation and trial. The trial handles the truth behind the Hope's Peak Academy, the Trial of Chp. 5 is re-done and the identity of the Mastermind is revealed. The Mastermind is cool even though their motivations are frankly stupid. The major plot twists in this are just too much, not due to them being well written or anything but they are far too unrealistic. It's not like the twists are special either, they're just not build up to enough or even explained as much as they needed to be. Especially the part about the students, "how" these things were done or happened were never explained, which is not how this genre works, and ofcourse they're not explained because they're impossible to ever really happen in the real world. Supernatural cases in mystery genre are nothing special; the writers of Danganronpa seemed to have simply skipped over those numerous stories in their robotic ways of gathering information on how to create a "proper mystery" and nothing more. The game tries to be too grand with its ending without much substance backing it up. It's not shocking due to the both bad and lacking layout of information which foreshadows the ending.

Yeah, final thoughts would be that the game was pretty damn lame. Everything from the story to the character writing for a majority of the cast, aside from Byakuya, feel incredibly flat. They are geniuses with quirks and human emotions to them, sure, but it does not feel like there is much actual substance to them past that. The main character is terrible as far as characterization goes apparently it's supposed to be acceptable  because he's justified to be a bland person in the beginning. He's the generic anime lead character with no personality. The atmosphere of the game is samey and repetitive each chapter without exception due to them being locked up in the school the entire game, should have been one chapter of gameplay in the outside world at first, atleast. Lack of proper build up due to the limited setting, and lack of fleshing out characters and events make the game feel just a killing game that tries to masquerade as some kind mediocre murder mystery series, which it sadly is. Bad pacing up the wazoo, soundtrack is mediocre at best, twists that are easy to guess if you just bother to think for a second, generic cases that are far too long for no reason; obvious things take hours to get mentioned again and when they do, they're "the proof we missed all along to corner the culprit!" and the whole thing practically feels like a waste of time for a game with such nice artwork. The ideas for some of these cases, especially the third case, were basically ripped off from the novel format, done by Queen and Christie multiple times, and put into this game. The problem with this is that it just does not work like that. It works in the medium it was created for the best. In this game it's just so goddamn obvious and unnatural that it made me cringe. I could see everything that would happen in the third chapter a mile away due to how badly it was structured.

Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc is surely enough to entertain novice people who have no idea how the tropes of the genre work as they most likely won't notice the awful pacing problems. For the rest - You can skip it and save time, literally, the hours of time wasted on nothing in this game just kill it for me. The game does not know how to present information and clues for a challenging and worthwhile fair-play mystery.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

"You tell your lies...
and you think no one will know.
But there are two people who will know.
Yes, two people.
Your god... and Hercule Poirot."

- Hercule Poirot

Murder on the Orient Express is one of the most popular Hercule Poirot stories out there, most likely due to its shocking truth reveal and wrap-up at the end of the story which also showcases a side from Poirot never before seen in the series as he has to face the complexities of what justice truly means, but the title's popularity no doubt also has to do with its ability to create a case and to tell a tale that is powerfully atmospheric. In fact, the first time I personally saw the case, during the TV series' run, I was blown away by the showcased ice-cold atmosphere created by the setting of the story. Murder on the Orient Express is created by the most sold author in our fiction history, Agatha Christie,  and published in 1934 as a novel, and has ever since gotten multiple adaptations; a game adaptation, a TV series adaptation in the 12th season of the 25-year-long Hercule Poirot-series in 2010, and another TV adaptation in 2015 (Japanese), and film adaptations in 1974, 2001 and now finally, in 2017 MotOE was adapted into a 2-hour long film directed by Kenneth Branagh who also starrs as the retired private eye Hercule Poirot (note: The film makes it seem as if Hercule is an active detective on duty and does not mention anything about his retirement, so in this film the watcher can only assume he's on duty). The 2017 film is going to be the adaptation that I will be talking about here.

After solving a rather normal case which has to do with a police officer being the culprit, Hercule Poirot takes a boat to Istanbul where he meets an old friend of his named Bouc who is a man that talks fast and loves prostitutes. He tells Poirot that he's going to be traveling on the Orient Express soon so there's no time to waste! At the same time Poirot gets news which he already guesses the contents of with his ability to "be able to see the world as how it should be," as he claims in this film; he doesn't even need to read a telegram to be able to tell its contents! - though he does have to ask Bouc for a favour: get Hercule Poirot a room on the Orient Express, as because of the telegram, Poirot's vacation gets cut short and he will be riding on it as well.
From the bird's-eye view, the journey on the Orient Express train from the summery forest area to the icy fields (the story is known in every adaptation to take place covered in snow and ice which is a heavy part of the chilly atmosphere the case creates) looks majestic in this 2017 version, almost fitting for a fantasy type series - the soundtrack sounds almost like it's made for a different genre as well.

On the train there are twelve other characters aside from the victim and Poirot with his friend Bouc. I suggest reading this part here and atleast putting their existence into the backs of your head, it makes the film much easier to digest as the writers don't help you with these when you get to watch the movie:
The Professor
The Butler
The Count
The Assistant 
The Governess
The Missionary
The Widow
The Salesman 
The Maid
The Doctor
The Princess
The Conductor 
The Trailer on IMDB shows these characters and their occupation.

Train is only missing the Dementors
So, the train is filled with a wide variety of personalities; the man-eater Mrs. Hubbard, Princess Dragomiroff, an old lady - who happens to be one of those extremely hard to please type of persons - who wants perfect service constantly and travels with a helper, Ms. Schmidt, and her dog, MacQueen, an overweight man who likes to drink, is the secretary and bank accountant of Mr. Ratchett. Aside from them, many others are on the train. The twist related to the characters is well handled - as it's almost impossible to fail at it considering how well written the source material is. Everything at the heart of the crime, every single character in this story ends up being connected to the case one way or another and it builds up to one of the most memorable reveals in the Poirot series (not saying that this 2017 version is memorable at all - the older and better versions are for me and I  will probably forget this one in a week).

Over at the train's diner, Mr. Ratchett, starred by Johnny Depp, tries to persuade Poirot to do some work on the train. He calls himself a businessman on the art side. As he believes that Italians want their money back for fraudulent items, he knows that someone is out there to get him on the Orient Express. Ratchett knows he's on borrowed time and needs the help of a detective, however Poirot declines as he does not help criminals.
Later on, the train does a quick brake and everyone on it gets forced awake. The Orient Express is now at halt, unable to move due to the bad weather conditions on the icy railroad, and then, in his room Mr. Ratchett is found dead, murdered, with different types of evidence left all over the place mysteriously as well as multiple different types of stab wounds all over his body. It's hard to tell whether they are done with a left or right hand; almost as if the killer kept their eyes closed, and the time of death is hard to pinpoint due to the window being open - the freezing weather affects the rigor mortis.

While watching this movie, the presentations for the characters was really off - as it's a Christie story, there are quite a few characters alright - all equally important to know of. The movie pretty much failed in making the characters memorable and even failed in telling the watcher who they are and what they do. Before watching the movie it's actually recommended that you watch the Official Trailer first, as it has the characters' occupation written next to them. I have added the link to the trailer after the list of character types in this blog post. That part in the trailer should have been in the movie, it could have  easily been presented as "how Poirot's mind sees the world," or something akin to that. It would make the movie much more comprehensible as it is a character-driven story, series and genre.

The motive for the case, the murder of Mr. Ratchett, has to do with a case that happened two years back. Ratchett's true identity is really known as 'Cassetti.'
The Armstrong case happened back then. A pilot, Colonel John Amrstrong and his wife Sonia found their daughter, Daisy, was missing; kidnapped. The Armstrongs paid a ransom, however Daisy was found dead, confirmed to be murdered. The case had no suspects but lead to the deaths of many. Sonia died along with a new baby in her belly due to the shock of what happened to her little Daisy, and John Armstrong sent a letter to Hercule Poirot explaining the case, before he himself did a suicide with a gun.

 The film looks clean and beautiful as you'd expect from a modern film. Though none of the adaptations seem to contain the essence of the original novel due to being made for a more modern audience - they are darker such as in the case of the 2010 adaptation or the comedic moments seem very off as is the case in this 2017 film adaptation - I do feel that the story works very well in all of the mediums; on the big screen, TV and as novel. The high production quality of all of these very different versions is actually one of the most exceptional aspects of this story.

 The soundtrack for the film is simple and forgettable but it does consist of actual music that is great to listen to such as this; Never Forget by Michelle Pfeiffer. The use of synthetisators for OSTs can sadly be heard in abundance in games, TV series and films these days, so atleast that's more positive than negative for this film.

 And finally the characters. The acting did not seem too unnatural for the series; it is what it is, but neither was it natural enough, some of the actors didn't seem to fit their roles very well. The acting plays like a soap series, the dialogue is forceful and stiff and the characters just couldn't really get any standout scenes to impress during the two hours of the film's run time. However the subtlety of Poirot's true motives for doing what he does in the end is well handled in this film and it gives a little bit of depth to all of the characters - I'm talking about 'why' the gun was empty and 'what' he wanted to gain from doing that. That part is one of those things that the watchers of this film take with them to home and maybe they wake up at night to realize something new about all of the characters' relationships with each other.

Murder on the Orient Express (2017) ends up being yet another okayish to decent adaptation of the original novel with some beautiful cinematography, an okay cast of characters and an okay soundtrack but the way the story itself plays out could be better handled; everything jumps around without being explained or paced well - these scenes are only confusing to the watcher and break the flow of the viewing experience -  and presentation of the characters and the camera angles inside of the train seem badly placed and handled. These things are the worst aspects of this film. The camera work is not that good when it focuses on the characters, which it does do majority of the story.
 *I prefer the melancholic feel and way of presentation of the 2010 adaptation much more compared to this film.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

The Twenty Year Old Murderous Intent: The Symphony Serial Murder Case

"If you want things to change, first you have to change."
- Dan PĂȘna

Detective Conan holds a special place in my heart for many reasons. It's one of the first series I actively got into, and the series that I bought most volumes for in my childhood, volumes which burnt down along with our family's apartment, and everything else nostalgic that was tied to it, many years ago. I just have to talk about it more because I know there are people willing to discuss about it, so I've been planning on trying to write about standout episodes in the series as well as get into some of the more highly acclaimed 'anime-original' episodes and share my thoughts about them as well. Before I can get to talking about the episode this time around, I just have to talk more in-depth about my history with the series and what it means to me.

It's been a good while, well over a decade actually, that I first started watching the animated version of this series because I used to visit shops all the time trying to find the next released volume's but the wait was just too long because the content was just so good in each and every volume, be it because of the way that the author Gosho Aoyama writes his characters or because of the crazy storytelling and plot twists that he pulled off in certain parts of the series. This is a bit cliche but Detective Conan was one of the first series that I watched on the net, if not the first, and that really was what pushed me to watch other series without me even realizing it, it was a time when I was the most into anime in general.

I used to follow the releases weekly for years in the animated format along with whatever came along the road that pulled me in, newer series such as the highly acclaimed thriller Death Note (2006), an anime adaptation of a certain visual novel named Higurashi no Naku Koro Ni (2007), Kindaichi R (2014), an anime adaptation of a novel named Subete ga F ni Naru (2015), and so on. . . I noticed that I was immersed into a certain genre; crime fiction, and it's the sub genre of soft-boiled detective fiction that I've put all my focus into the most of all. I spent years following the Umineko no Naku Koro Ni (2007) visual/sound novel series from the beginning to the end, same with the second trilogy of both the Ace Attorney and Professor Layton game series, and on top of that bunch of novels and some TV series and movies, majority of them of course crime fiction genre based. I'd love to talk about them all once more in this blog if I ever get the time to truly go in-depth about them, which I hope that I will one day.

It was that one volume that I picked up as a child that caused this... addiction, actually no, it was two volumes, because I happened to buy two of them with the price of one, but I will only talk about the one that somehow affected me the most. It was volume 35 of Detective Conan in which I saw a certain character with darker color of skin and a cool personality that was hanging around with the main character. In this volume the group witnesses gruesome murders in an island setting that is blocked from outside world (sounds all too familiar now). The captain of a ship got his head bashed in brutally and his corpse was left hanging on the side of the ship, and then another body of another character appears. A case with missing footprints on the beach, and a woman strangled to death. The way that these main cast characters went about solving the case really inspired me. They were cool and level-headed in such a tense situation as they cleverly dealt with such a coldblooded crime of the Death Island case (2001).

 The character with a cool attitude whom I mentioned is called Heiji Hattori and he's part of the main cast of the entire series, and for a good while now he's been my favourite DC character as well. Last year's Detective Conan movie, The Crimson Love Letter (2017), only served to reinforce my opinion of him as Heiji and his childhood sweetheart Kazuha played key roles in that movie, and it was amazing.

So, a mention about a volume of Conan that lead up to me talking about my life history as well as my favourite character in this particular series of course leads up to me talking about a case in the series, wooo!

Detective Conan's 174th episode, titled:
The Twenty Year Old Murderous Intent: The Symphony Serial Murder Case (2000)
produced by TMS Entertainment, known for their fantastic quality Lupin the Third productions, adapts a six chapter long case (which is long for DC's standards as the series is mainly about short stories) from volume 23 into a two hour special..! The episode is very special as it is actually the first episode of the 2000's of this long-running animated TV series, and the production values are at the top of the game for the series as well. The atmosphere of the case itself is great, due to the darker colors that looked fantastic in the early Detective Conan episodes, along with the effort the animation team put into the episode itself. Character dialogue, movement of the frames, everything is well produced. When we are asked about what are the best cases of the series, many DC fans, myself included, immediately point to ep 174. In fact I think one of the reasons I praise this one so much is because it is as close to a movie format canon case (case created by the original author which takes place in the actual world of DC). Now, there is more than just production values in the reasoning for why this episode is a standout.
The author, Gosho Aoyama, has a certain structure in the type of cases he writes. Theft or murder, the setting being in an island or a town, the tropes he utilizes, and so on, they all change from case to case along with the constant change of the overarching characters that the cases revolve around. Two examples would be: the Nagano police department cases are more about being hard-boiled in style, while Heiji Hattori cases usually have the 'supernatural' tag on them, so cases happen in enclosed spaces as soft-boiled mysteries (golden age-styled cases).
The Twenty Year Old Murderous Intent: The Symphony Serial Murder Case is the latter as it is a prime example of just how good Heiji Hattori cases are (it's crazy how they used a great case with Heiji to celebrate the 2000's!), I think this is by far one of the best cases for an episode I have seen. There are many cases and storylines that can rival and perhaps even surpass it, but definitely not many episodic cases that hold a candle to it because of the movie-like format. For the case, the supernatural elements are switched around a bit, instead of supposed monsters attacking people, we deal with a mysterious thief, but not one named Kaito.

The story:
*BANG, BANG* right off the bat, multiple shots can be seen and heard at a forest area. It's nighttime. A radio is playing in a car as a body falls to the deep sea from a mountain. "Four shots to the chest." The victim is known as Kanou Saizou, Organizer of the Shadows, and the people who killed him? His very own underlings. One of the underlings say that he had to be silenced because they had killed a bank assistant during the group's latest robbery, and because of that the boss, Kanou Saizou, was about to sing like the birds to the cops. Now, the three underlings have a problem at hand as they are still on the run and majority of the dough is marked by the police. The stolen money has to be hidden for the promised day of when it can be used, but where?

And then, 20 years go by and the prologue ends as 'chapter one' begins.
Mouri Ran, one of the main characters, asks her father, the great detective Sleeping Kogoro, to bring a 'record' to a certain place due to a newspaper announcement created by a person named Masaru Furukawa. The first ten people who bring a very special item, something almost everyone had in a previous era in Japan but almost no one has anymore, to the docks where ships are sent off, get a price where they are invited to a thee days and two nights lasting trip to Ogasawara on S. S. Symphony. After thinking about it for a second, Edogawa Conan, our protagonist, tells Ran and Kogoro that what they probably should bring with them to that place is not a 'record' but an old paper bill. And he was right as masses of people bring other items but can't get in but they did. What awaits our main characters is a large cruiser with a slew of people.

Now because Conan is a kid, the personnel technically allow 11 people to board the ship aside from there only being the promised 10 spots.  A huge cruiser for 11 people... Suspicious! What's more suspicious is that the organizer of the event, Masaru Furukawa, is nowhere to be seen, in fact the ship's workers have never even seen the guy as he had reserved the ship over the phone.

The characters on the ship are of wide variety. Aside from Conan, Ran and Kogoro, there's ex-superintendent Toji Samezaki (62) from the Homicide Department, he's one of the people Kogoro knew when he used to work for the Metropolitan police force. Samezaki had retired two years ago and he claims to be on he cruiser trip because it's a 'very special day.'

For the rest of the passengers we have:
 Teruyoshi Kameda (45) who is an almost bald overweight man that carries a seal mark that bears the letters 'Furukawa' in kanji. He meets up with a person named Korehisa Kanie (46) who shows him a key, and then they go to drink together to the bar.
Then we have a glasses guy Minoru Ebina (46) whom the ex-superintended seems to recognize from somewhere, as well as 'an old man who had boarded but then left to get something' and then had come back and went to take a nap, bothering him is not allowed. The old man's face is not shown so you can try to guess what kinds of tricks Gosho is doing with him.

S.S. Symphony is presented in a really beautiful way in the episode, be it during day or dark night. There's a scene where Ran goes to the front deck under the orange skies and shouts "I'M THE KING OF THE WORLD!" which is one of the more memorable scenes of the case as it's a Titanic reference, and the scene looks miraculous.

As well as the last few passengers:
Sadao Kujirai (50) is another passenger, but he's more talkative than the rest.
Nagisa Isogai (27) a woman with a pendant who talks about the sea hiding dead bodies as she had lost her father to the seas.
And of course there is certain other detective on the ship. 

The day turns night and everyone is enjoying their dinner. As the employee's of S.S. Symphony are asked about the 'quiet old man' who was resting in his room, they answer that his name is... Kanou Saizou...!

The very person, the mastermind behind the 400 million yen robbery, on the ship? The ex-superintendent freaks out and shows that he has a hidden motive. Kogoro and him decide to infiltrate the room appointed for 'Kanou Saizou,' which by the way has a nice addition to it when the ship's employee with the room key is shaking due to fear from opening the door, but in the end it's almost like no one's even been in the room at all when they go in. Strange. Was the old guy not resting all day?
At the same time as the infiltration happens, we can see Teryoshi Kameda, the almost-bald guy, get a letter and go to the engine room of the cruiser. There he meets his final moments as a gun appears on the screen and its trigger gets pulled.

The room next to 'Kanou Saizou's' opens up and we see the detective person whom was mentioned earlier. Heiji Hattori, our protagonist's rival and best friend, is on the cruiser as well!
Kogoro tells Heiji about Kanou Saizou from when he was still in the force himself. Saizou is known as an organizor of the shadows, a phantom schemer. The organizor of flawless plans where he easily escaped police forces. But then 20 years ago someone died during a robbery and the phantom schemer disappeared.

The statute of limitations. For a murder, a civil case, was 20 years when the case was created by the author Gosho Aoyama. That holds a large part in the intensity of this Symphony Serial Murder Case as the reason why the ex-superintendent said that 'today is special' is exactly because the statute of limitations runs out... Tonight! There is no time left and the main cast is constantly running against the clock. The underlings of Kanou Saizou have to be captured now! Even if they are all on the ship, there is no time to get on a shore and wait for the cops as the time limit is in a few hours. This aspect of the story ups the intensity to another level, from an already-tense situation where people drop dead while other things are happening. The presentation is amazing from many levels, to say the least. Literally the only way to make this case better would be to make it longer due to building up multiple plot threads and multilayered characterisation for the case cast, but that is not the author's style in the first place and the 6 chapters this was adapted from are perfect for what we get.

Heiji himself had gotten on the ship due to the very same Masaru Furukawa-named person sending him a letter with 100 000 yen in it. Heiji had come, but only to return the cash as his moral code says not to accept cash for a case.

As the race against the clock goes on and the intensity changes tiers, Kogoro and ex-superintendend Samezaki running all over the ship trying to track Kanou Saizou down, the rest of the cruiser's guests decide to play poker.

And then the clock hits midnight and time runs out. The statute of limitations has been crossed.

Immediately at 12:08, a gunshot! Not even time for a breather as the pacing of the story is so damn good. All the time there is something going down. The flag of S. S. Symphony is on fire on the deck, and there is a paper bill with writing on it saying 'My phantom shall rise from the dead with the help of Poseidon.' The paper bill has been stuck to a chair on the deck with a large knife.
Seeing the paper bill's text, Kujirai, one of the passengersm freaks out and an explosion happens on the deck! And a burning body is found. After the burning has ended, the others assume it's Kanie, the bald-looking guy due to his clothes. There are some mentions about rigor mortis's effect during burning as well as well as a certain plot twist about the dead body.

One of the best aspects about this episode is the way how the investigative parts of Heiji and Conan are handled. The information that gets passed around is interesting and the animation keeps it going. It's fast paced just like a lot of things in this episode, there's always something happening as I mentioned earlier, and the rivalry part between Heiji and Conan, where their deductions are in conflict, is one of the best in the series. I absolutely love the part where the animation studio shows their shadows when they compare their theories, and Heiji decides on a race where they can figure out who is right and who is wrong, as the last time their thoughs were at conflict was in the case when they first met.

In the end I've spoken a bit too much and don't want to spoil people about the greatness of this episode. As the time has passed and I've become more experienced about the tropes and cliches of detective fiction, rewatching this for about the 5th time has surprisingly enough been much more impressive than I thought it would. Gosho's style of pacing is frankly what everyone else should aim for. There are countless series where nothing exactly is happening in the episodes, but the fans only like them because the events that happen in them are standouts, such as decapitation, because 'gore is cool,' this case is far from light due to burning corpses and all the other elements in it, but it really reinforces my notion of Gosho's ability to condense information and write perfectly paced stories that do something new, for example it's a surprise that the statute of limitations is shown supposedly 'running out' only 25 minutes into the one-and-half hour episode. Also Heiji tends to get hurt alot in the series, this case is no exception. It helps to make the cases more personal. In this one Heiji gets attacked and goes missing, the watcher is left to wonder what in the world happened to him, and aside from Heiji, the one-off cast-only characters are mostly entertaining to watch as well due to each of them having a role to play in the story, and none of them overstay their welcome at all unlike in certain other mystery anime series (such as Subete, I just have to say it, sorry. The side characters in that were abysmally irrelevant).

There are some nice references in the case to Hercule Poirot's Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie, a famous ship case (probably the most known case on a ship ever), but honestly, I think The Twenty Year Old Murder Intent: The Symphony Serial Murders by Gosho Aoyama has surpassed even the great Christie, and there are not many other writers to talk about when it comes to great cruiser cases in detective fiction. The pacing of the events, something new happening one after another, great presentation and use of characters in the same format as Christie (in the Golden Age style),  well rounded plot twists after plot twists, and great handling of the smallest details from the strong beginning up until the climactic ending moment... It really is an amazing episode from so many standpoints, and as I said, by far one of the best episodic cases ever created, and that's a line hard to reach.

Monday, September 24, 2018

The Seed of Hatred

Although it was not in my plans, I've been in the limbo for a while (today it's been a good two months) due to so much happening in the real life but I'll say that this book did not help the case of me keeping the weekly reviews up. I was in conflict; I just did not want to skip a review of this one for two reasons. First reason being that it was a reread and it'd feel like a waste of time to reread something and plan to write about it and not do even that, and second reason being that for some reason I just can't find any in-depth information about this particular book on the net.

Hate Begins at Home (1967) is a mystery novel with slight thriller and romance elements created by the semi-known English children’s literature writer Joan Aiken, an author whose family were writers. The story of Hate Begins at Home tells the tale of two people, the antagonist’s side which tells about a successful and known violist being harrassed by others, and the protagonist’s side, a tale about a tragic young girl who is living in a place which she hates, the girl experiences extremely traumatic events and supposedly gets a depression with amnesia. The story replays some new events in the same manner as the first traumatizing event and it tries to be sort of symbolistic. 

The prologue of the story begins with a nervous man named Harry Lupac looking out the window inside a building in an unknown place. Lupac is waiting for a girl whom he is... about to murder. He simulates their incoming dialogue inside of his head, preparing for their fateful meeting inside the cottage. Aside from couple of mentions about what type of person Lupac is, the reader has no idea who he is waiting for or about what his motivations are for wanting to murder someone. The reader of course even has no idea about who he even is. The prologue fills the story with questions, however it does not flow very well in the overall story, as it's just a part of a chapter which happens much later, it's the build up to the last part of the story. 

The real story sarts up with the book’s first chapter, with a girl, a 17-year-old Caroline Trevis, sneakily moving in the woods, going towards a small shack in the forest while looking behind herself. What waits for her is a run-down apartment with a man named Tim Conroy, her hidden boyfriend who is studying for incoming exams. Caroline and Tim live their lives alone but both of them have their problems, Tim's is that his father, the owner of a large scale business that has to do with drilling and oil, is very ill, and Caroline's problems include her style of safe upbringing in a place where her mother simply wants her to marry a rich man as Caroline is not really 'good for anything else.' 
Caroline and Tim get caught by Ms. Trevis, Carinney's (what Tim calls Caroline) mother, while they are inside the run-down apartment known as Whistle Cottage. The situation, because of Ms. Trevis, leads them to forcingly getting married to each other as soon as possible. Tim's and Caroline's plan was to marry after the finals, so that Tim gets to study in peace, but no, all the pressure will come at them in waves at the same time. The wedding day gets changed on the spot as well due to Ms. Trevis, and because of the sweaty weather and Tim's father getting another heart stroke, the wedding itself is like a living hell to Carinney who takes all the negatives of the situation in an accepting way; all to get away from home. 
The Trevis manor, the Woodhoe House which exists in Woodhoe has long since seen its better days. It’s now a dog kennel that Ms. Trevis keeps up and her two children, Caroline and Hilda, take the dogs out for her. The family has a butler, the poem-loving old and very unhygienic Hudson and their cousin Flora, an old penny stretching lady who lives in he same house. 

Some years go by and Caroline gets a baby, young boy whom they named Punch Conroy. Caroline and Tim live they wanted off-screen from the reader’s, but their traveling gets announced in the news which are read by Ms. Trevis, Hilda and Flora, the usual Woodhoe House residents, that is. Year, two, three go by once more and the Conroy family travels to an oil drilling area in Bertha that is working under the name of the Conroy company, and that’s where their happiness leaves them as during a car accident where neither Tim nor Caroline were in the car, the young Punch dies. The entire story transforms and Caroline finds herself in a hospital bed, unable to remember anything, thinking she’s been kidnapped, then, soon, she finds herself in a cold-looking area filled with doctors, psychiatrists and the like. Caroline got an amnesia and a slew of other mental problems, and she was sent to live in to the place she hated the most, with her mother, sister, cousin, Hudson and the dogs. The problem with Caroline is not that she hates the people she lives with, but the style of living itself that happens in Woodmouth 
Caroline, broken, forgetting, easily manipulative. Now she lives again with her family as her husband Tim is working full day in Ras al-Abdan, keeping his family business going, trying to forget what happened to their little boy. He gets letters from Caroline which are very shocking to read, and from Hilda, which keep saying that it would be better for Caroline’s mental health if Tim weren’t to visit her, so that things would balance out at home. In the family house, the Woodhoe House which exists in the area of Woodmouth and near the run-down shack where Tim and Caroline used to meet up in (that shack is named Whistle Cottage, by the way), Caroline takes care of her mother’s dogs along with Hilda who has been sneaking out recently, meeting up with famous people. Hudson, their very unhygienic poem-loving butler is the only one who somewhat cares about Caroline, but basically hates everyone else. Hudson honestly did not get as much characterization and fleshing out as he deserved, sadly 

Thenormaldays in Woodmouth were not to last for long as three more deaths would happen in the story, all surprisingly enough in Woodmouth, and one of them happens in a mysterious way to the reader. I won’t be spoiling about the other deaths too much but the third death is basically this story’s only real mystery, and I can’t say it’s anything hard to guess, but atleast it’s more than nothing. The reader basically has to have an idea about what kind of characters the culprit is to understand why they killed that person. But aside from the later deaths I can tell about the second death (death after Punch's) which led up to the beginning of the events that would lead to the fated meeting which was mentioned in the very first page.  
 Harry Lupac is a quickly rising young musician, a violist who has the press and all the girls yearning for his attention. Harry hasjumpedaccording to the press, meaning that he’s come from a country with war or alike and supposedy left his sisters behind. That is what they write at least, it’s never actually confirmed what his past really is like, though. Anyway, Despite his career choice, Harry is a person who absolutely hates people who pry into his personal dealingsmarriage for example is impossible for him, as is simply telling others where his house resides. Terrible for Harry, fate were to have it that one day as he’s speeding with his car through the tunnel of Woodhoe Bottom, a jump boy jumps in front of the road, and boom, dies instantly to the impact. Although Harry does not know it, Caroline saw the whole event happen right before her very eyes as the young boy, House assistant Gladys Vernon’s son Garry, about five years old, ran in the road while wearing the clothes which Caroline had given Gladys - in other words Garry was wearing Punch’s clothes. For Caroline, the illusion was perfect, if for just a second. It was almost as if she saw her child die once more, as happened during that one day when she arrived at that flaming car, and she also blames herself for making Garry run away from her and jump right to the road where he got hit by the car of Harry Lupac, who did not notice Caroline who was standing up in the cliff. 

The book actually sells itself by telling the reader that it 'reveal the real murderer in the very first page ('reveal' happens in the very first sentence actually),' as well as claiming to have more of a mystery behind the story than just what it superficially claims. Well, it does have aspects of that, yes - things that the reader has to think about to figure out - but overall the "mysteries" are sort of unoriginal, the motivations are really unrealistic and they should have fleshed out Lady Trevis, Caroline's mother, more as she plays a large role in the story, and it's never brought up well enough (thinking about what happened to Caroline and the culprits, it just was not explained enough to be realistic even if I understand why they did their silly things).  

Hate Begins at Home has one similar problem with another book called In the Name and Blood by Ilkka Remes that I’ve posted about here. That is that they start the story in a way that is special due to the style of presentation with the writing style. That style should have kept up from the first chapter until the last, but it ends with the first and the rest of the story is bland and cliched nonsense for the genre. I bet Remes noticed how much harder it is to actually put effort that he just created that first chapter to lure people in only to drop them back into the sea again. Though unlike with that book which only contains a neat first chapter, the story of HBaH opens up with a pretty strong start as a whole. I am not sure what to say about the book as it really was kind of mediocre. I’ve reread the book once for this review as I read it before in 2016 and could not remember much. I think that the beginning with Punch’s death and Caroline’s trauma is kind of well handled, for sure, but everything else from Lupac to the main events of the story and the real mystery behind the scenes were kind of poorly written, boring and uninspired, to say the least. At the end of the story there’s a moment where the narrator goes through Caroline’s inner thoughts which is actually kind of neatly handled as well in my opinion as the whole story goes a full circle for the ending but it goes a full circle for far too many times, just for example the first apartment mentioned in the book, the Whistle Cottage, plays too much of a role, as well as Garry Vernon’s death happening in front of Caroline while he was wearing Punch’s clothes... I just think that Joan Aiken went too far with the intentional similarities between the events that happen to Caroline for me to swallow this story. The characters were also not realistic enough, or unrealistic enough for me to care about them, they were just bland with attempted quirks to them (like how Hudson brings out a poem or two all the time he says something).

In short: I acknowledge that the beginning and ending of the book had some strong parts to them to think about but they did not last long and overall the story as a whole, all things considered, was honestly and simply put just bad. I think that the amount of time that it took me to finally just sit down and write about this one tells more than enough about how I just could not be bothered to spend my time thinking about Hate Begins at Home.