I remember when I first saw Japanese comic books, or Manga, produced in the U.S. for American readers. They showed up at my store, five titles, to take up residence in our graphic novels department. They were Chobits, by manga collaborators CLAMP, about a romance between a human and a human-like AI; Great Teacher Onizuka, by Tohru Fujisawa, about a delinquent who becomes a beloved high school teacher; Initial D, by Shuichi Shigeno, about a young man becoming the greatest street racer; Love Hina, by Ken Akamatsu, a comedic tale of a young ronin finding himself caretaker of a girls dormitory; and Samurai Girl: Realbout High School by Reiji Saiga and Sora Inoue, about a school where fights aren't broken up, they're graded. These five titles were definitely chosen for their diversity, an attempt to catch a weak graphic novel economy unawares, and to try to introduce something relatively new and unique (Pokemon, probably the penultimate example of a successful anime series, had been on TV for about three years).
Five years and thousands of releases later, it's fair to say Tokyopop exceeded expectations in a big way. The manga section of your local bookstore is probably three times the size of the rest of the graphic novel department combined. There are hundreds of different series' to choose from, ranging in quality from very good to very, very bad, but the variety to choose from is almost an adventure in itself: Action, drama, comedy, romance, emo, mystery, sci-fi, sports, fantasy, historical, or any variation on those themes can be found in any random title you pull off the shelf. Manga has even been adapted by many American artists in an attempt to attract an established audience in a world where most independent comics will never see mainstream success. There are so many manga titles put out, in fact, that a truly standout title can often be missed in the pool outside of Naruto, Fruits Basket, and Sgt. Frog.
Which brings us to our review this week, The Kindaichi Case Files: The Magical Express by writer Yozaburo Kanari and artist Fumiya Sato. The Kindaichi series focuses on second year high school student (think junior year) Hajime Kindaichi, a clumsy, lazy, awkward, and socially benign young man who has few friends and little inclination to become more popular. However, many times has he found himself involved in murder mysteries where he used cunning and logic to solve puzzles others would have found impossible to decipher. It turns out he actually is the grandson of famous Japanese detective Kousuke Kindaichi, and that natural instinct, combined with a 180 IQ, has constantly surprised his peers, who expected him to be not much more than a footnote in the story. Several times has he been involved in stories where the impossible has come to pass, only for him to eventually explain how each sinister crime was committed and capture those responsible.
The Magical Express begins with a package delivered to Tokyo's Metropolitan Police Department. It's a trick box, the kind that can only be opened by following a strict set of instructions. Captain Isamu Kenmochi and the TMPD had inspected the box and thus far had been unable to open it, so Kenmochi turned to Hajime, since Kenmochi has known the young detective since his first case. Naturally, Hajime opens the box in a matter of seconds. Inside is a wooden marionette, with it's limbs twisted in a disturbing manner. Besides the marionette was a note:
"This coming April 28'th
I have cast a magic spell on the
train passing through Shikotsu-
Ga-Hara marshlands in Hokkaido.
Enjoy the magic of death and fear
This leads Hajime, Kenmochi, Miyuke Nanase (Hajime's childhood friend who always tags along on his cases), and Ryugi Saki (a Hajime fan boy and assistant who videotapes everything) to board the train in question, where a famous magic troupe entertains the passengers on the train's passage to the station hotel at the end of the line. There, the Magic and Illusion Troupe (pretty unimaginative name) will perform at that hotel's theater. The magic group is a very famous one, renowned for their impossible magic tricks such as the "Living Marionette." Well wouldn't you know it, the first day on the train, the "Puppetmaster" slips a miniature bomb on onto the train (in a rose salad, no less), claims there's another bomb on the train, demanding the evacuation at the next station, and then somehow (and without ever being seen, mind you) murders the leader of the Magic and Illusion Troupe, Gentle Yamagami. And then, just as amazingly, the body disappears without a trace. And then reappears at the hotel, twisted in the same position the marionette delivered to the police had been.
And so the chase is on! Who is the "Puppetmaster"? How did he pull off the disappearing corpse trick? What does this have to do with the death of famous magician Reiko Chikamiya five years ago? And will Hajime Kindaichi survive a killer's wrath to solve the case?
The books of the Kindaichi Case Files series play out with much the same setup: Murder one is committed, Kindaichi's on the case; there's never a shortage of suspects, usually there are a minimum of eight suspects who have varying relations to the victim; many times there is an obstacle preventing the heroes and suspects from leaving the site of the murders, whether a storm or lack of transportation, effectively trapping them with the killer in their midst; there is never just one murder, usually three or four of the supposed suspects become victims themselves while the investigation is ongoing; there is never one clue leading to the apprehension of the murderer, it's a trail of smaller clues that tell the story (usually of revenge) of the killers origin and eventually his identity; usually someone close to Hajime such as Miyuke (or even Hajime!) may find themselves in peril due to Hajime being too close to solving the case and the killer wanting him out of the way; finally, Hajime lives up to the legend of his grandfather and solves the seemingly unsolvable case.
Despite the seeming sameness of the series, I love reading what probably amounts to Sherlock Holmes for a younger generation. It's a lot of fun following along as this young prodigy calmly moves from scene to scene, probing each corner, searching for the tiniest clues, and tearing apart a suspect's alibi when he finally announces who the murderer is. This is in large part to the effective writing styles of Yozaburo Kanari, who's strength is weaving all the clues together so that they're in plain sight, right where you'll likely miss them. He also excels in character creation, making innocent (at least of murder) parties seem like the guilty suspect, and making the murderer a sympathetic character himself (or herself). Rarely is there a character in the Kindaichi Case Files you don't feel something about, good or bad. That said, there are weaknesses in the writing style. When Hajime isn't "on," he's a lot like other young Japanese anime males in that he doesn't know a lick about girls. His interactions with friend Miyuki are almost infantile (they have crushes on one another but don't know the other feels the same) to the point of perversion, and he always goes gaga over pretty girls or women. It's really the only true weakness of the series, but not completely out of character. It's just hard to take him seriously as a detective sometimes when he's stammering out words when introduced to a woman. Also, I'm not happy with the way Detective Kenmochi is portrayed in this book. Usually, he's a competent cop who, while not brilliant, has a keen mind. Not so here, where he's almost a mental defect, the obviousness of the plot holes he tries to explain away.
The artwork is pretty good. Fumiya Sato is a typical manga artist, good enough to properly capture the elements that Kanari puts into play. Her character designs are solid to the point where you will rarely if ever confuse the identity of two separate characters. In the scenes where the story is told from the murderer's point of view, her outline is always that of a shapeless asexual shadow, never dropping any clues as to who this character might be. Character expressions and set details are done very well, and the depictions of death are almost twistedly beautiful in a way that perfectly captures the horror of the moment. This is actually one of the better drawn volumes in the series, a sign that Sato has no intention of slowing down her involvement.
The whole thing leads to a completely satisfying conclusion, as each clue is brought to light and nudging the reader to go back to that particular chapter and see for themselves the clues they missed. Additionally, it's worth rereading the book to see it from a knowing point of view. I absolutely love The Magical Express, and would ask that even if you don't like manga, or if you're apprehensive about a medium that's essentially aimed at teenage Asian boys (understandable) that you should pick up this book (or if you're new, get the first book in the series, The Opera House Murders) and give it a shot. You might be pleasantly surprised.
As a final note, The Latest Issue will be taking this weekend off as I visit family for the holidays, but we'll be back next week with a new review at some point. Happy holidays!