(Note: Although this is the third of this review series, I only encourage you to read the first post in the series in order to understand the premise of the series and the intent of the review series)
While on my hiatus, I’ve been catching up on my back-log of manga series I’ve started to neglect such as The Kindaichi Case Files and Detective Conan. Embarrassingly, my reviews for each are significantly behind my reading. I’m as late as book twenty-five of Detective Conan, and I’m six cases past where I last reviewed The Kindaichi Case Files. Initially, I had actually wrote four separate reviews for these four separate stories we’re reviewing today, but I realized at the end I have very similar opinions of these four stories. I knew that four back-to-back reviews saying essentially the same things would make for awful reading, and spreading it out would mean taking longer before I get to review genuinely good cases in this franchise — which is less fun for you and me. Therefore, I decided to blitz through my thoughts on these stories in a mini-review lightning round!
“Smoke and Mirrors”
Kindaichi is conscripted by the Fudou High School occult club to investigate the “Seven Mysteries of the School”. Practically every school in Japan has their own “seven mysteries” — seven different types of supernatural phenomena that many students claim to have witnessed with their own eyes — so Kindaichi is naturally skeptical of tales of fountain water turning into blood or twelve-step staircases suddenly manifesting an evil thirteenth step. However, he nonetheless agrees to investigate for an important reason: at Fudou High School, only six of the mysteries are known, and a letter has recently been discovered claiming that whoever discovers the seventh will be killed!
Naturally, once Kindaichi receives a phone call from the president of the occult club inviting him to an abandoned school-building so she may reveal the secret of the seventh mystery, a murder is committed with her as the victim! Through the window, he sees the club president hanging in a parallel room in an attached school building — a supposedly sealed school building — but by the time he gets to her, the room has been locked from the inside and her body vanished from within!
This story’s impossible crime isn’t even remotely difficult to figure out, and for that I blame the atrocious English title for this case, as well as the uninspired central trick. What makes this case work decently well is the identity of the killer, which is fairly surprising as it’s one of the few instances in which Kindaichi divests itself of the typical “avenger from the past” motif that it relies on so heavily. The killer’s motive in this case actually ties into the architectural history of the school buildings and the fact it used to be a hospital, and while I think this element of the plot is a bit of an extreme departure from the “supernatural school mysteries” premise that we opened with, in such a way that I actually feel like it’s a waste of the premise, it’s nonetheless one of the better stories we’ve seen so far for having it.
“The Legend of Lake Hiren”
Years ago, a movie-obsessed social recluse, bullied into hiding, kept undergoing plastic surgery to make his face look like whatever his favorite movie character is at the time. However, after so many surgeries, his face was eventually disfigured and disgusting, forcing him to adopt the identity of the only fictional character he could resemble: Jason Voorhees, from Friday the 13th. Haunted by his disgusting appearance and manifesting the personality of the man he resembled, “Jason” proceeded to murder thirteen people with an axe, chopping the faces off of each and every one! He was soon caught and sentenced to prison for this gruesome murder…
Years later, Kindaichi and Miyuki are roped into taking Miyuki’s cousin’s tickets to the screen testing of a soon-to-open resort, which itself is also a competition to determine who will receive the resort’s immense membership free of five-million yen! And it is at this resort that bodies start to show up, each killed with an axe before having their faces cut off, supposedly killed by a recently-escaped “Jason”…
This story epitomizes my central issue with this manga: despite the stories being four times as long as Detective Conan cases on average, you’re really getting half the mystery plot and a quarter of the cluing. This is especially exasperated by the fact that every case is a serial killing (typically involving three victims) and in each of the stories only one of the murders really contributes to the mystery plot. The other two are either committed to supplement the trick of the first murder, or for ultimately no reason and are usually forgotten aside from providing a motive. As a consequence, you get clues that only exist in respect to the one murder, and the other two tend to be long time-fillers that have to happen before Kindaichi can figure out the mystery (for some reason?). The result is that the stories often feel thinly plotted and sparsely-clued, not adequately taking advantage of the standardized length of the plots, and this story is the worst example of that! Especially since you’d need to have your own face cut off not to figure the mystery out…
One thing I did like, the movie motif does come back, as the motive relates to a traumatic event in the characters’ pasts involving an “unsinkable ship” which does, in fact, sink. This is of course a reference to the film Titanic. It’s an underplayed part of the story, but I appreciate this touch of thematic cohesion… It’s still quite a bad story though.
“The Santa Slayings”
At the Hotel Europa, a troupe of actors are preparing to put on a mystery drama, in spite of recent death threats against the unlikable and grouchy head actress. It only stands to reason that, despite the heavy police presence, the lead actress manages to get herself murdered by potassium cyanide in the wine she drank as part of the production…
This one is a pretty standard theatrical mystery, but to its benefit it is one of the tighter mysteries in the series. The tricks involving the central murder of poison are ludicrously cheap and obvious, sadly, and the locked-room murder that gets committed later is pretty obvious, pulling from a well of standard mystery tricks that anyone who has read a mystery story before will likely immediately identify as the solution. There is a double-edged bend to the theatrical murder that I enjoy, especially with how it’s weaponized against the killer, but it’s all standard, average fare.
What kills “The Santa Slayings”, however, is its attempt to give the killer a tragic backstory. The backstory is unearned, essentially un-clued except by one of the most ridiculous visual clues in the medium, and entirely ludicrous. It’s such a huge damper on the story, and the killer explaining it takes up a third of the story!
Oh yeah, and there’s something involving a drug-dealing Santa, which thematically has nothing to do with the story around it and sticks out like a bizarre red thumb. Not very good.
“No Noose is Good Noose”
The students and faculty at a preparatory school have ceased to be surprised when someone commits suicide on the premises. In two years alone, more than two dozen students have hung themselves somewhere in the school. It has since been merely written off as a curse of the school and treated as an expected part of everyday life. However, when chickens start being cut up and hung around school, with threatening messages being left around, the school’s mathematics teacher Yoko Asano is the prime suspect thanks to a series of rumors. She’s only finally arrested when she’s found inside of a locked-and-sealed room with the hanging body of a student…
In a better series, this story wouldn’t stand-out at all, but it’s easily the best Kindaichi case we’ve seen so far! What this story essentially turns on is an Agatha Christie-styled gambit with the addition of a locked-room mystery with its own false solution, and a somewhat obvious alibi trick. While individually these two tricks aren’t even close to being impressive, still essentially being two very old dodges everyone should recognize immediately, it was surprising to see them combined in an actually incredibly smart way to create a surprisingly tight murder plot. The clues also make brilliant use of the school setting, with its alibi plot using a class schedule in place of a Croftsian time table, and things like test sheets becoming actual clues in the mystery — Kindaichi even lays a trap for the killer using a school exam!
In a void this isn’t a great story, as it’s still quite obvious and not totally inspired, but it has some fun with the school setting to generate some creative clues, and the combination of two age-old dodges into a surprisingly dense plot make “No Noose is Good Noose” the most decent Kindaichi case thus far… Gives me hope for what’s to come!
Two quite bad stories and two pretty… decent ones fill out this portion of The Kindaichi Case Files, which actually drops us off near the middle point of the original File series. It really is hard to find so many different ways to say “this story reuses old concepts with little originality, and is therefore quite obvious”. Early Kindaichi is kind of hard to review, because it really is a lot of stories that are underwhelming in similar ways. I know the series improves though, and I definitely look forward to it…!
This review has a lot less production value than my typical Detective Conan reviews, and there’s a reason for that — Conan volumes are written with three stories in mind, so the format lends itself to one post dedicated to three or so stories. But since I’m compressing four reviews into one post, it’s a bit harder to do… I was considering turning this into a running format for these reviews, but I decided against it, and will return to reviewing each story as if it were a novel with the next story, “The Headless Samurai”.
And, as always, rounding everything out with new rankings…
- No Noose is Good Noose (Series 1: File, Case 8)
- Smoke and Mirrors (Series 1: File, Case 4)
- The Opera House Murder Case (Series 1: File, Case 1)
- The Santa Slayings (Series 1: File, Case 7)
- Death TV (Series 1: File, Case 3)
- The Legend of Lake Hiren (Series 1: File, Case 6)