FIVE TO TRY: Japanese Thrillers Even Mystery Lovers Can Enjoy

Mysteries and thrillers have had such a wedge driven between them that for the two to overlap is often a spectacle worth noting as rare exceptions, such as the spectacular “puzzle boxes” of film director Christopher Nolan (Inception, Interstellar). While the western incarnations of these exceptions are often highly well-documented in our little blogging niche of the internet, those crossovers between purified detective stories and thriller from Japan are significantly less publicized than their straightforward honkaku (“authentic”) detective story counterparts.

And so, cribbing the title of this post from Jim Noy’s “FIVE TO TRY” posts over at his spectacular blog, The Invisible Event, I intend to offer to western fans of Golden Age mysteries and detection five Japanese thrillers which appeal even to our specific sensibilities! These aren’t just any old “mystery-thrillers” or “thriller-mysteries” or whatever other permutation of genre names you want to think of; these are thrillers which contain a style and nature of plotting which I believe should specifically appeal to fans of the Golden Age standard and method of mystery plotting!

So, below are my five picks for Japanese thrillers which I believe even those in our little nook of the internet can enjoy!

Death Note

The quintessential Japanese mystery-thriller, Death Note is predominantly a manga series about Light Yagami, a high-school student who discovers a supernatural notebook called “The Death Note”, writing in which allows Light Yagami to kill any person as long as he knows both the real name and face of that person. Now going by the alias of “Kira” (Killer) ascribed to him by the media, Light Yagami is tracked down by a master detective who goes by the enigmatic name of “L”.

Death Note is the very first entry that came to my mind when I decided to compile a list of thrillers which I believe even English-speaking authentic mystery fans could read and enjoy. The series is possibly the most well-known “cat-and-mouse” thriller from Japan to English-speakers, with the story following both the perspectives of the criminal Light and the detective L in equal measure.

Despite its supernatural premise, the eponymous Death Note is guided by a set of strict, unbendable rules which dictate how it can and cannot be used, making it a verifiable example of the hybrid mystery. Furthermore, while L can sometimes resort to “moon logic” (wildly convoluted or counterintuitive reasoning), typically his reasoning is based on information the audience is also privy too. And since Light/Kira’s responses are equally guided by reasoning based on information known to the audience, it can be said that despite being labeled a “supernatural thriller”, Death Note is as much a fairplay detective story as any other inverted mystery, in which we’re equally capable of reasoning along with both sides of the crime: commission and detection.

I recommend this most to people who: like inverted mysteries and capers; don’t mind supernatural elements in their mysteries; enjoy following the psychology of the villain.


Billed by Wikipedia as a “psychological thriller”, LIAR GAME is a multi-media franchise which began with a manga (Japanese comic book) about Nao Kanzaki, a naive college student who is suddenly sent 100 million yen (roughly $760,000 USD) and instructed that is now a competitor in the Liar Game Tournament, a multi-stage competition in which participants are encouraged to cheat, betray each other, and lie in order to get their hands on each other’s money!

…A problem, indeed, for the “foolishly honest” Nao Kanzaki.

In this tournament, the competition is split into various stages in which contestants play games of wits to overcome their opponents and win their money. For instance, the very first game is a game called “Minority Rule”, in which contestants are asked to answer yes/no questions. If your answer is the minority, you move on to the next round of the game, but if your answer is the majority you are immediately disqualified… Of course, however, as players are permitted to lie, there are three questions you must ask yourself every round: (1.) how many of my competitors does this question apply to, (2.) how many of my competitors know the answer to question 1, and therefore (3.) how likely are the competitors to lie, and is it beneficial to me to answer correctly or lie?

As Nao Kanzaki moves through the various stages of this tournament, instead of keeping the money for herself, she begins to use the earnings to buy her contestants out of their debt and, hopefully, slowly dismantle the Liar Game Tournament Organization from within the game itself…

LIAR GAME is almost certainly the closest thing you’re going to get to “fairplay mystery plotting” in something which is, frankly, not even a “mystery” at all. Rather than dealing with murders or thefts, in LIAR GAME the puzzle is always “how can Nao mathematically maximize or even guarantee her chances at winning each game?” Information is never hidden from the audience, and with a close enough understanding of the rules, the player is constantly in possession of all the details they need to see Nao’s path to likely or certain victory! In every game, outcomes can be forced, rules can be cleverly exploited, and nothing is ever left entirely up to chance or victory. A stage for many complex math puzzles and logic problems, LIAR GAME is almost like a mystery story in which you follow a protagonist who has to solve, not crimes, but purified riddles! Something like The Hunger Games, but with competitive puzzle solving.

This genre of story is not uncommon in manga, often called “gambling” or “game” stories, but very few few manage to be as good as LIAR GAME, which is as complex, satisfying, and fair as any crime story!

I recommend this most to people who: like riddles, logic problems, and math puzzles; are interested in game philosophy, game theory, and logic theory, especially as it applies to gambling; enjoy heavily rule-dictated conflicts.

Raging Loop

“Werewolf” is a social deduction board game in which players are randomly assigned roles like “Townsperson” or “Werewolf”. Every round of the game is separated into two stages: nighttime, in which the players assigned the role “Werewolf” secretly select one person to kill (remove from the game), and daytime, during which players debate about who they believe the Werewolves are, vote them out, and then kill them.

However, imagine if instead of a board game, these rules dictated the real murders and deaths of real people in a cursed mountain village out in rural Japan. Then, you’d have Raging Loop.

In the “visual novel” (a video game with lots of text that mostly only exists to tell a story) Raging Loop, Haruaki Fusaishi bikes into the mountains with no idea of a destination. However, during his trip he gets stranded in a remote mountain village which, he discovers, has been the battlegrounds for a war between the God of the Mountain and the demons of Yomi (Hell)…

In order to keep the battle fair, rules have been established: at the start of the “war”, a random number of villagers are killed and replaced with Werewolves who take on all of the traits of the person they’re replacing! Every night these Werewolves are allowed to kill one person of their choosing, and every day the survivors debate amongst themselves who they believe are the Werewolves. And, if they believe they’ve found an impostor, they vote, and the accused person is hung by the cliffside… If all the Werewolves are exorcised, the Mountain wins, but if the Werewolves ever outnumber the surviving humans, the survivors are murdered and the mountain is overcome by the Yomibito…

While competing in this bizarre murder game, Haruaki is murdered and discovers he has the ability to go back in time and make difference decisions by dying. Using this ability, Haruaki tries to stop the deaths. But, as he continues to change things in the village, the “game” begins to take on different, progressively complicated permutations, putting Haruaki more and more at risk of being unable to overcome this bizarre curse…

Raging Loop‘s first three chapters are very interesting exercises in mystery-writing in which you, the player, read about the characters participating in a murder game following specific rules. While early on the characters are comically awful at Werewolf, which might be frustrating to real-life veterans of the game, it helps ease newcomers into understanding the concept, and as the games progress and more and more characters compete in the game, the games begin to get more creative and more deceptive!

Because the murders are based on the real rules of a real-life “mystery game” which are easy and intuitive to understand and we have access to all the same information as the characters, despite being easy to sum the game up as a psychological horror game, it also means we have the ability to reason along with the players as they play the game. It’s easy to intuit what the characters will do (to the same degree as it’s possible to do it in the real-life party game), and it’s possible to reason about who is and isn’t the Werewolf on the same level as the characters within the narrative. Using a heavily rules-dictated conflict makes this a fantastic thriller game for fans of mystery fiction, as it hits a lot of the same notes, focusing on tight strategizing and clever logic required for the characters to survive!

While the chapters following the multiple “games” aren’t nearly as interesting, the first 20 or so hours of the game are fantastically fun mystery-thriller fare! Check out my friend “Bad Player”‘s review here.

I recommend this to people who: like social deduction party games; are interested in psychological horror; enjoy conflicts in which the players are forced to apply creative strategic thinking in order to survive/come out on top.

Paranormasight: The Seven Mysteries of Honjo

Paranormasight: The Seven Mysteries of Honjo is a game best experienced knowing as little as possible, but what I can say is that it’s a supernatural horror-mystery puzzle game in which the player is tasked with investigating the truth behind seven curses befalling seven groups of people…

The game’s narrative is incredibly dense and complex, and while it’s the furthest thing from a traditional detective story on this list, it is still a satisfyingly complicated mystery tale involving the interplay between a giant collection of brain-teasing plot threads and puzzles which mystery fans should enjoy if they’re comfortable with a more heavily video game-ish experience.

I recommend this most to people who: like J-horror; enjoy ghost stories; are comfortable playing video games

The Empty Box and the Zeroth Maria

 Kazuki Hoshino is an average student at an average high-school trying to live an average high-school student life without anything getting in the way of his very peaceful, un-compromised existence. Hoshino’s ardent commitment to maintaining as unspectacular an existence as humanly possible has attracted the amusement of a being named “O”, who wishes to give Hoshino a “Box” — a wish-granting implement that will give him anything he asks for. When Hoshino rejects the wish, insisting he doesn’t want anything he doesn’t already have, “O” decides to make it his mission to subject Hoshino to as gruesome conditions as he can until the high-schooler relents and accepts the “Box” to wish for his everyday life back…. in an experiment to test the furthest possible limits of human homeostasis.

During this experiment to push Kazuki into accepting a wish, more and more of the people in his life are given “Boxes”, and these “Boxes” take the wisher’s deepest desires and externalizes them into supernatural phenomena… all entirely centralized around disrupting Kazuki Hoshino’s average, everyday life!

In order to restore balance to his existence without wishing the “Boxes” away, Kazuki Hoshino, along with Maria Otonashi, must continue to (1.) discover what the nature of the supernatural phenomenon targeting them is, (2.) figure out what manner of which produced the phenomenon, and (3.) figure out who would make such a wish and convince them to unhand their “Box”…

The Empty Box and the Zeroth Maria is, strictly speaking, a “supernatural psychological thriller” novel series told in the form of semi-episodic mystery stories. There are seven volumes in the series, each one focusing on a different incident with a different wish produced by a different “Box”, and in each case the protagonists are required to deduce details about the wish and wisher, making this another honest-to-God example of the hybrid mystery plotting style. While it isn’t strictly-speaking always fairplay, and the first book is more of a straight-forward supernatural drama, some of the books like Volume 2 really get close to purified detective fiction, including genuinely fair clues, clever logic, and format-breaking storytelling that make this a super interesting and enthralling supernatural detective series.

I recommend this most to people who: are comfortable with high-school drama; are interested in supernatural mysteries; want a series that gets progressively more surreal over time; are interested in psychological drama.

While their shin-honkaku brethren are more publicized in our nook of the internet, these five and more represent how varied and intelligent the world of Japanese thrillers can be, and just how amenable they can be to the sensibilities of lovers of puzzle plots and Golden Age mysteries. Oftentimes they can be found not far from the hallowed grounds of authentic mystery we love so much, so if you choose to pursue any of these stories, happy sleuthing, and good reading!


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